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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Ice Cube's March 1994 Cover Story: 'The Devil Made Me Do It'

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 1994 issue of VIBE Magazine.

“Four years ago, he was “the nigga ya love to hate.” Now Ice Cube has a wife and family and has embraced the Nation of Islam. The original Boy N the Hood has finally moved out of South Central. He says he’s older, wiser, and still true to the game. But, asks Joan Morgan, has hip hop’s leading prophet of rage lost his edge.

Written By: Joan Morgan

It’s a beautiful day in Encino, California. A good day, if you will, in the spanking new offices of Ice Cube’s fledgling company, Lench Mob Records. Cube’s wife, Kim—a very pretty, very pregnant woman—drifts by every once in a while to tell him about an important call he needs to take or affectionately chide him about the growing piles of clutter on his new desk. He says it isn’t messy; she says it is. Their wedding picture occupies the one spot on the desk that is relatively clear, a constant in a pile that seems to be ever-shifting, ever-shuffling.

It’s been almost four years since Cube’s debut solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, marked his graduation from a mere nigga wit attitude to the nigga America loved to hate. Lookin’ back, we were ripe for it. Cube broke out at a time when hip hop was definitely on some ol’ “I feel pretty” shit. Nubians had discovered the elixir of self-love; Afrocentria abounded—sometimes ad nauseum. But as Langston Hughes once wrote, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs….”

Cube came ready to serve heaping mounds of ugly. On AmeriKKKa, Cube emerged as the sonic personification of unmitigated black rage. It was violent, sexist, powerful, relentless, funny, and painful. It was also seductive as all hell. For white America, it was a voyeuristic look into the world where racism causes its equality-starved victims to feed upon themselves. For black folks, it was a long, cold, hard look in the mirror. There we were, ass-out for the world to see, and all the Brooks Brothers/kente cloths, relaxers/dreadlocks, embarrassment/denial in the world were not going to change the fact that these “negative” characters were very real fixtures in the black community. In the pain and insane.

On his second full-length album, 1991’s Death Certificate, Cube stripped away the comforts of voyeurism and showed white America what real unmitigated black rage would look like if it ever made its way out of the ghetto. The picture was not pretty. Jews, gays, and Asians were the newest victims to get caught in the cross fire. And many of the oh-so-liberal observers who sang Cube’s praises when he was rhyming about niggas killing niggas and smackin’ up bitches (read: black) were now demanding he be silenced by any means necessary. In 1992, Cube gave his critics the definitive “fuck you” when The Predator premiered at number one on the charts.

A lot has happened in Cube’s life in the last two years. He’s happily married, a follower of the beliefs of the Nation of Islam, and the father of a little namesake (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), with a baby girl on the way. Fans and detractors alike will tell you that Cube seems a lot less angry these days. His new album, Lethal Injection—funky, melodic, and relatively laid-back—has left some listeners grumbling, “the Nation and married life done got to Cube,” and others wondering if the absence of ire means that they need to find a new vehicle for catharsis.

Over the course of several hours in his office, Cube spoke—full of riveting insights and maddening contractions—about work, life, family, relationships, and how he intends to survive the pressures of being the world’s most celebrated angry black man.

How conscious were you of your audience when you were making this record? On Death Certificate, for example, the concept was that side A would say one thing to your audience, and side B would say another thing.

Well, from Death Certificate to now, my audience is totally different. From the little white kid that’s nine years old to the old grandmother who likes “It Was a Good Day.” That’s my whole audience. So I really don’t have a pinpoint idea, even though I still do my records directly for black teenagers and young adults.

But I was getting feedback, some people saying, “well, Ice Cube lost his edge.” So I have to do records that you expect and records that you don’t expect. With The Predator, I really wanted to show that Ice Cube has skills—do “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” or “Wicked,” and show that I can do just a rap record with no social message. That was the main focus on The Predator. And one thing that’s never been consistent on any of my records is the music. There’s never been a certain musical feel to the whole record. So on Lethal Injection, I tried to keep the music consistent, and then throw the raps in for messages. My next record will be real put together, more like Death Certificate.

There was a time when you had to go to the ‘hood to hear rap, plain and simple. There are pros and cons to its commercial success, but do you think that the expanding audience affects its ability to really be a voice of young black people?

No, because the good thing is that the hardcore records are still respected more than the pop records. Once the pop records get more respect than a hardcore street group, that’s when the music will hurt. But any kind of pop, bubblegum, sugar-toast group out there, the hardcore still gets more respect, and that’s where it started from. So as long as we keep that base, I don’t think the music is hurting at all.

What about the people who front being hardcore, but really aren’t—who don’t come from where they say they come from. Those records aren’t pop, but they have a pop thing about them in the sense that people don’t know, so they buy it and eat it up. Do you think that waters it down at all?

If you’re black and live in this country, it’s an experience. You got a story to tell, and you’re legit in telling it. Because no matter how rich you are, how poor you are, this country sees black and white. You’re going to get treated pretty much the same way. I think what matters is what a group is saying: Nobody is harder than a bullet. I don’t consider myself a hard individual; I can’t step through the earth, I can’t stop a bullet with my bare flesh. I consider myself real, and that’s a difference.

We have generals out there that have never shot a gun in a war, but they could tell you about war because they know how to look at it. I know a lot of killers, but they’re in the pen now, so they can’t rap. And I know people who have witnessed things and can explain it. I don’t think that makes them less legit than a person who has—quote, unquote—been through it, because we all have been through it. Unless you’re black, you don’t know. Period. So no matter who you are, I don’t think it waters it down.

Some people are comic books, and some people are newspapers. Comic books have a whole lot of shooting and killing, but you ain’t getting nothing out of it. The newspaper maybe has less of that, but it’s true, or somewhat true. I think the audience can pick out who is the comic books and who’s the newspaper.

How do you think the mainstream media is handling rap right now?

Well, rap is the only thing where information is distributed that don’t go through these channels that information usually has to go through. Without a newspaper, Ice Cube could still sell records. Without a magazine, without a video, without the radio, Ice Cube could sell records. So there’s no way to control that. That’s scary to the ones who control this all. Because if you distribute information, you can teach the people.

Everybody else—movies, TV shows—has to go through certain channels, and music used to be the same way. If you didn’t get played on the radio, you didn’t sell. Nowadays, that’s not even an issue. Radio play can damn near hurt you. That scares the media, so they have to attack the media, so they have to attack rap and make it not so powerful. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T, whoever is saying something, that’s the main threat, and their main focus is to try to bring us down. And they use different ways, they see exactly what tempts you. Some groups they watch and try to bury from the start—let you blow up fast, then get you buried.

Is Arrested Development an example of that? They got written up in places like The Wall Street Journal.

They saw that the group had some conscience. Let’s see what happens with their next record. It’s going to be like, damn, they was all over MTV last year. I didn’t hear nothing about them this year. It looks like you failed, because most of the people that’s watching don’t know the game. You look like you’re on top of the world, and next year, you ain’t nothing. So it looked like you just took a nose dive. And that can kill a group, if you play into that game.

People try to play that game with me. See, I know that game; I’ll take the long route. Don’t give me the short route. I don’t want to do that. They played “Good Day” all over the place, then they want me to play on the Rock and Jock basketball games. But, I’ll play with my homeboys, you know, because those people don’t love me. They don’t love what I’m saying, and I know it. So before you take the gift of the devil, you’ve gotta see exactly what’s in it for him.

Would you say that from the mid-’80s to now is the first time that young black men have had control over their public image?

No. Until we can control networks, movie studios, theaters, the only image that we really control is our image through rap. We are open people so the hell that we’re going through is all in the streets. The suburbs are going through hell, too, but you don’t see it in the streets. But you go in the household, and it’s all hell inside the household. The streets look quiet, because white people are really not open, emotional people. Their neighborhoods reflect that. But if you go inside each door, each household is going through a crisis. The tripped thing about it is, they’re going through a crisis, and they got all the damn money.

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What do you think of that crisis—the dissatisfaction that’s affecting not just black families but white families in particular?

In America, for any people to be powerful, they have to ride on the backs of the poor. How do you keep people poor? You keep them ignorant. So if you want people to be slaves, or have a slave mentality, you keep them from knowing those things that will set them free. That’s the aim of the government, to keep people ignorant, and I think what you have is people fighting to gain some kind of knowledge of who they are and where they’re going. It’s like they’re pushing down and we’re pushing up. And we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle, and I think that’s what tearing America up right now.

So pretty soon, it’s got to change, because I can’t see myself sitting on the back of nobody’s bus. And my sons probably can’t see themselves putting their hands up in the air when the police pull them over. If the government thinks they’ve got to worry about Ice Cube… it’s that 14-, 15-year-old, who’s buck wild and feels invincible—that’s the one you’ve got to worry about. And the ones coming after him are going to be worse, until we have freedom, justice, and equality.

Given the realities of poverty in this country, that there are poor people who are white, who are Asian, who are Latino, do you think economic conditions could ever unify people? Do you think that there could ever be a unified movement of blacks and other oppressed people?

It could be, and it should be. But when it comes to oppressed people, the black man is always at the bottom of the totem pole. The closer you are to white, the more arrogant you are. A certain kind of arrogance is breeded into people. White folks are snotty towards black people. Orientals are snobby, all the way down the line, ‘till you have lighter black folks more snobby than darker black folks. It comes all the way down the line to the blackest, blackest, blackest man, who’s everybody’s an enemy of.

Once we learn how to love each other, then we can reach out for other people. But how am I going to help you build your house when mine’s not finished? It don’t make no sense. I think we have to stop looking for so much outside help, and start to help ourselves.

I really wish we would build a wall {laughs}— not a physical wall, but a wall around our community—till we get our thing together. It’s like a football team just going straight up to the line of scrimmage—no play, no huddle-up, no nothing. Just out there doing plays, running into each other. You have to huddle up, get your shit together, and then you can go and attack the other team with a play. We refuse to do that. We refuse to huddle up and get our shit together. Then we can challenge the world.

There was an article that we did in the magazine about Japan. Right now, Koreans in Japan are really treated badly. They have something that’s almost the equivalent of a pass system. They make you take a Japanese name, and if you’re Korean, there are certain jobs you’re not eligible for. Just a lot of discrimination. And a lot of the kids are really big rap fans, because they say that they really identify with the oppression in the music. One kid said, even when you don’t understand the words, you understand the feeling and the anger behind it.

Do you know what I think about that? If Japan is for the Japanese, I ain’t got no problem with that. At all. Japan is for Japanese. Korea is Koreans. Now, the problem I have is, America is for Americans. But they tell you that America is for everybody. See, to me, that’s worse. Because you’re looking for something that you ain’t never, ever going to get. If they said, “Look {snaps his fingers}, America is for white folks. Black folks, here’s yours.” I ain’t got no problem with that. The problem is America saying, “oh, this is love, the melting pot.” But America is for fucking white Americans. Straight up—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

I went to Japan. And in some places, it was like, ah, you can’t come in here. I had no problem with that. Because I knew that, up front. They didn’t disrespect me. Japan is for Japanese. You ain’t going to come over here, you ain’t going to get no Japanese job. But that’s honest; what you see is what you get. What I hate is the motherfuckers sitting behind a desk at the record company, with a tie on. Bigger crooks than my homeboys. To me, that’s worse. Deception is worse than the truth.

So if America is for white Americans, cool. But America owes us a spot, a piece of this country that should be just for black folks. And they ain’t got to worry about me ever going into that part of the airport, to where they are. I’m content.

Let’s change the subject a little bit. I want to talk about you as a family man. You got married. You had a son. You have another kid—a daughter, this time—on the way. You moved out of South Central. How do you think being a family man has changed your life?

It’s made me more of a man. Not as reckless as I used to be. I thought I’d never move. Never, man— this is me, right here. But when you’ve got a family, and you’ve got motherfuckers going, “We’re going to kidnap your wife,” and you’re in Baltimore...damn, how do I protect my family? When you’ve got niggas driving by your house that you don’t know: “Yo, Cube, man come outside.” So I said, let’s get to a place where I’m not as popular. Or a place where nobody knows where I live.

I used to think, how could you make money and then move out? But it’s like having a piece of meat in the jungle. All the lions and tigers want that piece of meat, too, ‘cause they don’t have none. So, what you’ve got to do is take your meat in your den, or your tree, or wherever you are and eat it. And then show everybody else how to get some meat, too. So you won’t become prey, sitting in a land of predators. I used to be a predator, and I never want to be the prey, but that’s how it is. You can’t fight off everything.

My family made me more cautious. I’m old and I lock my doors and all that stupid stuff that I never used to do. But, you know, you got somebody that’s your blood, that’s your purpose on earth, so you want to make sure your offspring survives. Some people say, “I’m never having kids”—well, fool, your history stops right there. I want to be able to sit grandkids on my lap, and tell them stories about how it was: “They burnt the city down in 1992, or was it ‘93?” That type of thing. I want to be able to play with my kids. You know, if my kids start running with the gangs, I’m able to relate to the things that they’re going to have to go through, so I’m cool with it. I think that’s my purpose, to instruct the youth—not only my own, but other youth— on how to keep out of this self-destructive cycle.

I think that people who just know your media image would be surprised that you’re married. You have this image of being a raving misogynist. So I want to know what was it that you were looking for in a wife?

Somebody that was strong. Just like I hate yes-men, I hate yes-women. I hate that. Because I don’t know everything, so I need somebody to tell me, “Yo, you’re fucking up over here.”

You always knew she’d be a sister?

A black woman?

Uh-huh.

Oh please. Please. Man. Nothing but. White woman took me to the store one day during a video shoot…. I felt so uncomfortable, just riding in the car. Just terrible. It’s true: the truth is true.

You mentioned yes-women. Do you think black women, in particular, have problems with self-esteem?

I think black men have problems with self-esteem. I think black women know what they want. And they make no bones about it, and they hold you up to that. But for black men, there’s extra, added pressure. That’s why black men are more likely to die of high blood pressure and all these types of things, because of all the pressure that comes from not being the man of your house—being a man physically, but not mentally. I think that’s why a lot of men beat their women, feeling like, “I’m not living up to what I am, and I can’t take it out on the one that’s oppressing me, so I’m going to take it out on a woman.”

I think you’re right—I think it is about lack of power. So what do you do? I know a lot of black women who are intelligent, and beautiful, and strong. And lonely as hell. Don’t really want to date white men, you know, not trying to do that. I guess I’m asking how can we heal as a community if we can’t come together and have positive relationships?

Well, I can’t answer that. Um...damn. That’s a heavy one {laughs}. The black man is going through a plight, and we are—oh, here we go: we are like children, the whole black community. Whatever the white man does, we want to do. Just like the child wants to do what the adult wants to do. And the white man disrespects his women on all levels.

So I think everything that he does, we do on a smaller level. Even killing each other. Yeah, we do Crips and Bloods, but then you look at Bosnia and Herzegovina. You take car-jacking, and then you take Panama—you know, country-jacking. He hates his woman, and he’s been our only teacher for 437 years, so we hate our women. He erased all of our knowledge and replaced it with his own. And his own evidently, is not good for us. We will continue to do what we’ve been taught, until we decide not to follow that way. Children follow their mother or father to a certain extent, and then they have too break off and do their own thing. That’s what our community has to do.

So ultimately, what you’re talking about is the need for us to develop a value system that’s not based on the materialistic, or sexist, or patriarchal, or racist ideas…

We need not just a value system, but a whole national system. We need to become a nation within a nation. We need to have our own everything inside this culture. That’s how we survive. Because this world is the devil’s world. You have to break from that, make a new reality, in your own way. And become something other than what this world is producing, which is shit, hell, destruction. And I trip off the preachers, because if this world is of the devil, you should be trying your damnedest to get away from this world. But you’re trying to fit in, you want to be there with Clinton, shaking hands. What the hell is that?

A friend of mine was in this position recently, and I want to know what you think of it. She was in the car with her baby’s father, and he was listening to The Chronic, and she was like, “I don’t really care when you play it in the house; I don’t like it, but you have every right to play it. But around our daughter, I don’t really think she should have to hear that.” And he was like, “This is my experience, my reality, this is a part of where I come from, she should hear it.” So I want to know, what are you going to do when your little girl comes, and she wants to know whether it’s okay to play the year 2000’s version of The Chronic or AeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, for that matter.

Now, why would I shield my daughter from anything that I can explain to her, inside the house? Why would I say, “No, don’t listen to that,” so she can go outside and hear it with no explanation, nothing behind it but what people her age know about it? I’d rather pick my child’s brain, to give her the right medicine, because I can shield her from it while she’s in here, until she steps out that door. And nobody’s shielded from nothing when they walk out the door. I don’t shut the kids out from nothing they want to look at—nothing. Def Comedy Jam, nothing. They don’t laugh at what we laugh about, because they don’t understand. But just break it down to them.

When parents are in the position to teach their kids, they don’t; and then they get mad when they got rappers teaching their kids, because the rappers don’t shield the kids from nothing. The rappers tell them straight up. And that’s really all the kids want to know. The kids don’t need to know lies, they want to know the truth. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny...how are kids going to grow up with that bullshit?

There’s been a movement, internally, to address a lot of these things in black music, like sex and guns in lyrics. What do you think about that?

I’ve been saying this for years: You can’t change the problem if you don’t got a problem. If rappers didn’t come out with “bitch” and “ho,” we would still not be addressing that issue at all. Now, in 1994, we’re starting to address that. If everybody comes to the conclusion that “bitch” and “ho” aren’t appropriate for the community, they won’t be used. Just like “Negro” is not used no more. It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t fit, it has no meaning. But until somebody brings that to the table—here’s what’s going on, here’s what’s happening—you’re never going to address it. It’s like, if your hair is messed up and I hold a mirror in front of you long enough, you’re going to use a comb. That’s our whole purpose.

You said earlier that there were people who say you got married and got soft. What do you say those detractors when they that your music isn’t as hard as it used to be, that you lost your edge, that you’re not as angry as you used to be?

I ain’t as stupid, that’s basically what it is. We hate ourselves so much that you ain’t hard unless you’re talking about, “I shot this nigga, I got 1,000 AKS, I killed 1,000 niggas.” Motherfuckers would rather hear you say you killed 1,000 niggas than hear you say you smoked one devil. They love that more than they love themselves. So that’s the only thing that’s changed in my music: it’s more focused. I know that killing a nigga down the street ain’t going to solve none of my problems at all. And I don’t put that into my records, unless I’m explaining a situation. I ain’t stupid no more. And some people can’t deal with that. Niggas are scared of evolution, niggas don’t want to be free.

They’re scared because with freedom, you have to make your own decisions. Freedom is responsibility. Shit, I live in my mama’s house, cookies are there every day. Bam—you move out, ain’t no more cookies in there, unless you put them in there. You’re like, “Damn, I got to buy dishwater liquid?” That’s the responsibility you want to take to be free. These are scared Negroes, just like when slavery was over; yeah, you’re free to go. Now what am I going to do? We sharecropped. Still a slave.

What would you say to someone who says, okay, you’re married, you have two, five, maybe eight kids. You got a house, you got a car, you got a business...Cube is really living the American Dream.

It ain’t no dream for me. You can’t compare one man’s wealth to a whole nation of poverty. If they foreclose on my house, I can’t go to my bank and say, “White man, let me get a loan until next month. Give me $20,000.” Until I can go to my people and get help out of any financial situation I’m in, there ain’t nobody rich. I’m as poor as anybody else. I know how to get some money, and my duty is to show people around me how to get it, and how we all can get it.

So might that mean taking a step like directing feature films after all these videos you’ve worked on?

Yeah. Directing is cool, but I need to grow. I’ve been offered films to direct, but I’m not ready. I need to learn this game more. I’m going to be in this movie with John Singleton, Higher Learning. So I’l be looking over his shoulder the whole time. I never went to school, so I really want to sit and learn the game, and not just jump out there and be weak {laughs}. I don’t want to do nothing weak. I want to make sure I win.

READ MORE: Library Of Congress Adds N.W.A's 'Straight Outta Compton' Album To Its Registry

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Sean Brown

Meet Amaal, The Socially Conscious Songstress Ready To Express Her Own Truths

Somali-Canadian singer Amaal is like no other. At close to a year old, she and her family—she is the middle sibling of seven sisters and two brothers—immigrated to Canada to flee the devastating war in Somalia. That experience, in addition to her strict upbringing, all played a defining role in the artistry she hangs her hat on today. Amaal has never shown herself to be the kind of artist whose lyrics are filled with fluff, sunflowers and daisies. Instead, each line in her music represents pivotal, significant moments in her life, whether they pertain to heartbreaking experiences with love, enlightening trips back to Somalia, or learning to embrace her true self. The Toronto native’s work has always possessed a sense of honesty, but it’s on her newly released EP Black Dove that her vulnerability becomes abundantly clear.

Raised by traditional Muslim parents, Amaal admits that she’s always had a certain type of image to portray and standards to live by. However, despite the parental pressures that she grew up with, Amaal was content—for the time being. She didn’t reveal the fullest extent of her personality to her parents for the longest time, but they did know pieces of her and Amaal was at peace with that. That is, until it started to affect her music making process.

“I felt very dishonest, to be honest,” the 29-year-old says about creating music that primarily fulfilled the impression her parents had of her. “I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music.”

Once the former University of Toronto student was candid with herself, she became candid in her music about various aspects of her life, and that is how Black Dove was born. Amaal went from singing on afropop beats to leaning on R&B sounds much more heavily in her material. However, despite shedding the original soundscape that introduced her to the music world, Amaal plans to always have that element that traces back to her Somali roots.

“I absolutely love [afropop] and I still always want to incorporate that,” she says. “Everything I did before I would still want to incorporate.”

Prior to the release of Black Dove, Amaal would pen songs about her travels to Somalia, the period of time she lived there as a teenager, and while that theme may not be as overt in her new EP, it’s still an important piece of her heart and life. To this day, when she’s not busy in the booth preparing new tunes, she’s in Somalia aiding the community in more ways than one. And old, new and future fans of Amaal have October’s Very Own’s (OVO) Noah Shebib to thank for the arrival of the songstress on the music scene.

Full of tranquil energy, Amaal opened up about the various meanings Black Dove holds to her, navigating the music industry as a Somali-Canadian woman and staying true to herself no matter the cause.

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VIBE: You’ve described Black Dove as being an EP that represents the "you" that you’d previously kept hidden. Can you explain exactly what "you" was hidden? Amaal: Yeah, that's a good question. I was raised in a very sort of strict, conservative upbringing household. There's just a lot of things that I felt like wasn't ever a possibility that I can do. I didn't imagine certain things to be possible for me. When I started doing music I really didn't express a lot of the things I was going through in my relationships, 'cause to even be in a relationship is not really looked at in a good way. I started doing music that always had this message of hope and resilience within the community of people I was raised with: immigrants, refugees. When I did that music, I felt like my mom, my parents were very proud of me. Although it was my story and what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable being in that space and that's what I kept doing. That's what I kept going at. Just one time I thought, There's so much in my life that I've been through, that I've kept hidden, almost living a double life. I felt very dishonest, to be honest, and I didn't feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music. I was disappointed and I thought, This has to change.

I just started talking about things that I had gone through in relationships, staying in a relationship longer when I should've left and the whole concept of struggle love. Just the black community, my community... I feel like we, as women, sometimes we feel like we have to endure pain in order to show that we love someone. From the outside looking in, people didn't assume that about me, but that is kind of what I was. I grew so much from that and I wanted to share that in my music. Black Dove to me represents freedom. I love birds, I love doves, I think they're so empowering and free and I'm a black woman, so it was like black dove.

It’s interesting that you felt like you were living a double life, even though it was in a space that you were comfortable. The way you are with your family, even though it is you, it's not the full extent of who you are. Yes, absolutely. In your music it's very hard but if I was doing a 9-5 job, I could, 'cause I was mastering it, I would be able to still continue doing that. But now, I have to have those conversations. I'm actually really learning I didn't give [my parents] enough credit. They're actually really awesome people and I'm disappointed in myself that I could've opened up in more areas. But there's still some stuff that needs to be talked about.

 

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My loves, I’m so excited to share that my EP BLACK DOVE will officially be out July 12 🕊🙏🏾Black dove means to me freedom. Freedom of my own captivity. Freedom of the shackles society placed on me! It means no longer committing a disservice to myself and owning every part of me. It’s having the courage to show up and recognizing true strength is in being vulnerable. It’s Breaking down to rebuild and running to the other side of my fears. I feel so honoured to share these moments with you all! It’s only just the beginning! @applemusic presaves will be available next week ❤️ 📷 @byseanbrown Special thanks to @sidneigum for allowing me to wear this heavenly dress!! You’re beyond talented and im so thankful!

A post shared by Amaal (@amaalnuux) on Jun 27, 2019 at 4:57pm PDT

Was it difficult for you to be so honest with this EP, having gone through the experiences that have led you to be completely honest with who you are? Yeah, it was. I love how you worded that earlier. Although I was living a double life, I was comfortable in that area. It was working but I definitely had to face those things that I was pushing away. I just realized the definition of the strength that I thought I was and people perceived me to be was a front. There was a lot of ego-dropping and really being raw and vulnerable with myself. That's why for a lot of the tracks, I like the instruments to be very ambient and not that much going on. I like to build off of one or two instruments because I want to let my subconscious do the talking so that my ego's gone and I can be present. But I think that's the journey of getting there. It didn't happen overnight. There's some stories there that I never thought I would share but now I'm excited to talk about them.

Would you say that your need, or the feeling that you felt to hide yourself, came from just that specific place? From family? Mostly family, religion. Religion is number one. That played a huge role. Something I really struggled with, even talking about it in interviews, I'll be honest with you, because I do have a very deep connection with Somalia. I do a lot of activism work. I went to school for that and I want to continue doing that line of work. Unfortunately, there still is some sense of safety that I have to think about so I have to censor some things. But religion was hugely a part of it.

When you were in school, were you still doing music? I always did music. But even when I released my first body of music, the intent wasn't to be a frontrunner, to be a musician. It was out of pure expression. It was actually really innocent. Me and my cousin would write together, we'd be like "oh wow we have so many songs let's go to a studio and record." That was it, it was really to show my family and friends the clips and then it did really well. It pushed me into that setting. I actually had to take some time away from school, to go and focus on it and then I ended up getting signed to Noah Shebib. He's Drake's right hand. That was an amazing experience as well, but music was always the core.

You moved to Canada from Somalia at a young age. Do you feel as if the move didn’t have as much of an effect on you being so young? I absolutely remember nothing of it. But the experience had an effect on me because of everyone. We ended up moving to an area in Toronto where it was mostly Somali people who were running from the world. We all came with our PTSD and mental health issues. So, you did sense that things were not okay. Because I mean the first few years, the war went on for a long time. It’s debilitated the country. Almost my entire life I've known instability to be there. Thankfully it's getting better, but it's deeply within us. Even though we were away from the problem, we weren't. 'Cause my mom was getting a phone call of her dad passing away, getting killed, her brother essentially losing his mind because he saw so much. Bad news coming constantly to us, so it did still feel like it was present and it did affect us for sure. In ways maybe I don't know, in ways that I think it inspired me more to work harder in this life because I owe it to them and their sacrifice.

Do you feel very connected to your Somali heritage? Yeah, big time. We were very lucky because my dad made a big point that when were coming into the house, he'd say "Leave your English at the door" and "When you step in the house you speak Somali." People are very surprised to hear me speak. They're like "I would not have expected that." It's not amazing, it is good, but when I went to Somalia, I went woah, nevermind. I thought I was with it... yeah no. It's a poetic language. It's not like direct speaking, it's a lot of poetry. And you're like "oh my God, I don't know." I do the direct talking, my way of speaking is very different but it's very fascinating there.

When's the last time you went to Somalia? I saw on your Instagram page that you’ve been there a few times. Yeah, I was there a lot. I believe 2017, I was there three to four times, and then I was there in 2006, I believe. I was there for a year [in 2006]. It was pretty interesting. But the last few times I went to do famine relief work. There was a really bad drought that happened and a humanitarian crisis. There were like six million people that were going to go without food. A guy named Jerome [Jarre] started this initiative—two million dollars were raised and then we went there, took multiple trips, giving food, water, whatever the necessities were that they needed. So I took, three or four trips back and forth. It was phenomenal. It was the most sad, beautiful, everything experience ever. I saw a lot there that I wasn't prepared for.

Do you feel like there are other life experiences that have shaped you into the woman and artist you are today? Absolutely. That trip to Somalia—the one that I was there for a year—I say that trip. Even today what I'm doing, that's how much it domino affected my life. Because when I went there, I went a little bit spoiled, naive, ungrateful a little. I'm going to be honest. I was like "school's school, whatever," I just didn't care. And I went there and I saw how appreciative, how humble, how thirsty people were for knowledge, their education is huge. And how little they have but how content they are with what they have. I just remember thinking: "You've got to check yourself, you're kind of wack. You have all these opportunities." And these people are so inspiring and so everything. I learned there that although their world collapsed during the war, women were the backbone of that nation, they're the ones that kept it going. I admire them so much more, I really connected with my roots. I always say the girl who went there is gone. Left. I came back a completely different person. I couldn't connect with my friends, I immediately enrolled in school. I got my sh*t together. I did, I had to. Ever since then it's been my compass that's kind of guided me. It's so crucial to me.

Being described as socially conscious, not only in your music but outside of your music, why do you think being aware of our world and the issues that go on around us is so important? I forget this quote somebody said it but, I believe our ticket to this Earth is to be paid in service. That's just the way that I feel because Earth is our home and it provides so much for us and it's our job to also provide for it as well. That means all of its living mammals, whatever it is. I think coming from a country that's experienced so much turmoil, a continent that's gone through hell and back, and has been exploited—and don't even get me into that—I don't even know where it comes from but I know I was born with it. Does that make sense? It's instilled in me, so to put it into words, it's hard for me. But I just know it's necessary for not just you but for our future generation and their kids, you gotta clean your home right?

So is the growth you experienced from that trip and in general over the years, and who you've shaped yourself to be and who you're still shaping yourself to be, is that the message you want your fans to get from Black Dove? Are there any other messages you hope your fans pick up from your EP? I definitely hope that they can understand the journey that I've been on because of the style of music that I was doing for so long. But I think they will because I believe a lot of women from upbringings that I've had, there is that internal struggle that we all deal with where we want to please our parents but we also need to please ourselves. This project for me is... I'm pleasing myself. I feel there's this awakening happening, that women are starting to... essentially there's always been that message, but right now it's more powerful and we're really owning our voices. Feeling empowered in our sexuality and just who we are in our identity. If anything they could take is owning yourself and being okay with you are. You're enough. I'm writing that in my little cards to everyone, "You are enough."

The music you’re making now is a lot more R&B, and has a bit of a “vibey” energy to it, but not in the stereotypical sense. Being an artist, who would you say you idolized growing up? I'll be honest, I never idolized any artist. I think that word, I've always had a hard time with. But if there's someone I absolutely loved and adored, it was Aaliyah, because she had an Arabic name, too. I connected with her and she was of my generation. I didn't have the opportunity to hear a lot of music in my household. I didn't start singing until I was in high school, I didn't even know I really had it, anything. I started to listen to music in high school and I'd go back and be like, "Oh my god, who's this?" Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and all these greats. Nina Simone I loved because she lived in an era of oppression and the history of America was happening. She used her music to talk about that. She found a way to do it that I think a lot of people still aren't able to. I would say people from that time. Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Toni Braxton, too. Love her voice. Of course Beyoncé, she's the obvious, the guidebook, right? Aaliyah was my number one top.

How'd you discover that you could sing? I was singing Mario's "Let Me Love You," and a friend was like: "Oh, you sound good." I'm like "Really? Cool." And then I'd be singing on the bus and then somebody else said something, I was like "Okay, interesting." So I just started singing more. My sisters would say you sound pretty and I would mimic other artists. Not mimic them in that way, but practice tone and agility and the little runs.

With artists today, do you have anyone that you'd like to collaborate with? Yeah. There's two artists that I love. Two female artists, I'm obsessed with them. It's Ari Lennox and NAO. I would love to. I think they're brilliant.

Ari Lennox definitely matches your sound. Ah, I love her. She commented on my picture the other day, I damn near lost it. She's just so special. When I see her interviews she's just so real, very nice, and like awkward but in the most beautiful way. I love her. I'd love to work with those two. And then for producers, Pharrell would be a dream come true. There's a guy named Stint, he lives in L.A. I've worked with Noah [Shebib] before but to actually get back in and release a song together that would be dope. 'Cause we have stuff from the past. Yeah, I think that'd be a nice little full circle moment.

 

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A post shared by Amaal (@amaalnuux) on May 27, 2019 at 10:31am PDT

Getting deeper into your music, what was the process for creating this EP? How long did it take for you to complete it as well? The process for me was deprogramming myself, if that makes sense. Whatever cultural binds that were holding me back in my life, I had to first approach that before I even went into doing music. It was a lot of that type of work. And then when I went into the studio I really wanted space in my tracks, so I can express myself and let the subconscious tell the story and bring forth things that I've gone through in my life that I never would've shared. I felt like that's what I needed to do in that moment.

It was a little bit hard because one of the stories was about visiting someone that I loved that went away to jail for eight months. I visited him every single weekend and during that time, I'm telling you right now, very little people knew. Just my sisters because they know everything about me, a few girlfriends and that's it. I never thought I'd ever share this story, but going through it, it started off as a bit shameful, head down, getting on the bus, you just really don't want to say where you're going. And then by the end of it—because we would take this bus that was filled with women, who were going to see their loved ones as well—I remember falling in love with them. It was like a sisterhood that we formed, a support system. They had my back, I had theirs. In the end to feel shame would mean to be ashamed for them as well and I loved them. I just remember that whole feeling melting away and seeing them and myself in a light of admiration. I was very proud of myself. There was no shame. That's what the EP was for me. Telling those stories, telling those moments, I otherwise would've bottled up and it took a year and a half, I would say. I did start doing the EP and then I erased almost everything and I started all over again when I found this place that I was at. I was like, "No, I gotta be honest and open."

If you weren't as vocal before, do you feel like you had to be more vocal in the music industry? More assertive? How do you navigate it? Aw, man. A lot of my failures was because I wasn't assertive. A lot of my setbacks was because I never spoke up for myself and that is a lot culture as well. I was taught to allow the other person to decide. It definitely held me back in a lot of opportunities, and taking me to where I needed to go. It's interesting because you want to be able to do that without being called a bi**h, which is really sad, or a diva, which I find really heartbreaking. It's really sad. I'm now finding my voice and I'm for the first time seeing the reaction. Before I just allowed it, so that's been a really interesting landscape to navigate because I'm like,"oh I was honest with you and you're offended, why are you offended? There's no reason to be, so, now I have to soothe you again." I'm still learning and finding the best way to do it but it's really hard being a woman in this industry because it is male-dominated. But, I'll take being a bi**h now, 'cause at least I won't look back and be like, "I should've said something," 'cause that's how I felt previously in my past things, relationships that I was in.

Listening to Black Dove it’s very vibey and seductive. How did you make sure your sound was distinct and unique to you? For me, I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali background and we sing in a bit of a pentatonic scale. It's the Middle Eastern sound, it's just some of the runs. And I did it, in not what I thought, it was like a run that you wouldn't hear in the Western R&B style of music. I tried incorporating stuff like that. Picking drums that had a bit of an African feel, drum pattern to it. If the music was sounding not as unique, I would try to make sure at least the topic in which I'm singing about does. But honestly my go-to usually is very minimal. I gravitate towards that and I think that's been my unique thing because most production that I hear there's a lot happening. I know when I hear a lot happening, when they do that with some of my songs, I get a headache. Honestly, it's weird, I feel clustered. I feel like my message is being lost a little bit. Even in my graphics, some of the designs, I'm very minimalistic, very simple. I try to incorporate that into my music, I hope that's been able to set me apart.

On your song "Later" you sing, "if I hold us down you'll change your behavior." And from what could be understood from the song, it seems like a relationship that you give your all in, but the same isn't reciprocated and if it is, it's later. A lot of people can definitely relate to that feeling. Is this song from personal experience? Oh this one's all personal, 100 percent. It's the story I was just sharing with you. I actually wrote this song on my bus ride to go see him. It's such a long story, but to sum it up, we were already in a bit of a weird place during all that time. I think that would put stress on any person or any relationship. But, going there to see him, I remember thinking "I want to be there for him, I want to be loyal, down to that ride or die." And it can be damaging sometimes but in my case I really felt it was worth it. But yeah those are my questions, "I'll hold us down, I'll do all this stuff for you but will it be worth it and will you see my efforts." It was definitely being inspired by those women because we all shared a similar story. That's the story that it came from, that's so cool that you picked it up the lyrics.

Moving forward in your music, what is one constant that you want your fans to take from you as an artist? Some fans will take different things. Muslim-Somali women I think I want them to take that I'm a risk taker, I am resilient, I'm in a place where the judgment of others is no longer of importance to me and I really hope that that's something that is taken. Overall as a black woman, I hope that people can take the place that I'm in and feel comfortable with where they're at in life and feel empowered and powerful and comfortable in their skin and that they're very important and valid and that they're voice is to be heard. I think just that sense of independence, I really hope overall is what people take from this music.

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Bisexuality Is Fluid, And TV Is Finally Catching Up

There was a lady who sold bootleg DVDs on my block when I was a kid—three for 10 dollars. My mom would usually let my brother and I pick whichever ones we wanted, and on one occasion, I specifically remember us picking out American Pie 2, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and 8 Mile. Those were the days when we’d watch movies over and over again until we could recite every line before it reached our ears. My brother always wanted to put on Goldmember. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with 8 Mile, more specifically with Brittany Murphy’s character, Alex. I understood exactly why B-Rabbit (Eminem) was so into her. She spoke in a low, sultry voice and always knew what she wanted, then went for it. That was in 2002, when I was 10. It was the first time (that I can remember) that I suspected I liked girls.

I didn’t know, for sure, that I was bisexual until I was in college. I had been “pretend kissing” girls and being turned on by ones I liked as long as I could remember, but I always attributed that to my hypersexuality. I’ve always been a very sexual person. The way I heard people talk about bisexuality reinforced that belief for a long time: bisexual men are gay boys in denial, and bisexual women are insatiable straights. I always think about how different my teenage years would’ve been had I seen more bisexual characters on TV, ones who could help me navigate questions that I didn’t feel comfortable asking and conversations that no one had with me. Right now, there are more bisexual characters on TV than ever before, and even though some shows have a lot of work left to do, lots of them are putting in the work to portray important stories and jumpstart necessary conversations. Here are 10 times TV shows actually got bisexuality right.

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