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Heather Weston

Interview: Raquel Cepeda On Identity, Race & Hip-Hop

"Extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything."

Raquel Cepeda is a fighter. The renowned writer, journalist and filmmaker is clad in light blue patterned tights and a gray crop top, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail— she is furiously jabbing a black Everlast bag. On this chilly Friday afternoon, we’re at Mendez Boxing where Cepeda spends a good amount of time training for her bouts.

Inside, the large space on the lower level is laden with black punching bags, swaying from the ceiling. Behind the cloud of sand-filled sacks, sits a red boxing ring. As Cepeda makes her way around the gym, she gets pounds and greetings from many boxing aficionados here. You can very much tell she is a regular and perhaps well-liked. Not to mention, she's quite comfortable kicking it with the boys. After we take a stroll around the facility, we settle in a wooden bench by a row of yellow lockers.

Born to Dominican parents in Harlem, and raised in Washington Heights during the early '80s when hip-hop was in a state of becoming, Cepeda is no stranger to battling adversity. From surviving a crime-ridden neighborhood to standing resilient in an abusive household, she details in her 2013 memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina her simultaneous journey of finding her roots through ancestral DNA.

Cepeda has lent her editorial wizardry to And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip Hop Journalism Of The Last 25 Years, and has served as Editor-in-Chief at the now-defunct One World Magazine by Russell Simmons. She's also penned for biggie publications like The Village Voice and The New York Times, among many others.

Her film credits include a documentary titled Bling: A Planet Rock, which tells the story of how hip-hop’s flashy lifestyle played a role in the 10-year civil war that took place in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The film features artist Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Wall and reggaeton star Tego Calderon, among others. And if you're into that sort of thing, you can also hear sound bites of Cepeda’s socially charged commentary on her ABOUT RACE podcast.

“I feel like life is a continuation,” she says. “You grow every single day. I learn something new everyday. I learn from my three-year-old and I learn from 19-year-old. I learn from everybody around me. Every time I travel. Everyday on the subway, in my neighborhood—I learn something new that challenges my beliefs on everything and I think that’s exciting.”

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, VIBE VIVA talked with the fearless Latina, during which we discussed everything from the inception of her journalism career, to growing up in Washington Heights, to how she self identifies. Gloves on or off, Cepeda is always down for the cause.

VIBE VIVA: When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
Raquel Cepeda:
Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember when I called my grandmother—my mother’s mother; to tell her ‘Mama I sold a book—my memoir and she started laughing. And I was like ‘why are you laughing?’ And she said because when I was very angry in Santo Domingo, at five-years-old I would say ‘One day, I’m going to write a story about our family and I’m going to set the record straight.’

My grandmother said ‘Well let me tell you something honey, I didn’t give a s**t then and I don’t give a s**t now.’ It's funny because it’s a book about our family, so I guess she told me that ever since I could speak—I was talking about being a writer. And that is something I guess I inherited from my birth mother, because my birth mother— her daughter—always wanted to be a writer.  If she didn’t meet my dad, she probably would have been a writer. That’s what she was studying to become.

How did the hip-hop and Uptown scenes in the '80s influence the woman that you are today?
Well, I was born in Harlem. I went to Santo Domingo like a lot of children of Dominican immigrants—they go back and forth. And I was shuttled back and forth between my maternal grandparents and with my birth mother and father. When I came back to stay with my father and stepmother who is from Finland in 1981, hip-hop, Uptown, Washington Heights was crazy.

One of the things that we were known for is the expression that you can arguably say comes out of hip-hop, or hip-hop comes out of this particular branch of the culture, which is graffiti. The Bronx really took it there, there were really great writers in the Bronx. The earliest photos that Henry Chalfant shot were Uptown all the way in Washington Heights and Inwood.

So, I was growing up around that. Also for me, rap music and the culture was a way for me to be able to talk people. To people that were Dominican, Haitian, Black-American, de-franchised white, whatever it was, hip-hop was a way that we can all come together and talk. Because it was a thing that we were creating that the authority figures and the old people hated. So the more they hated it, the more we used as a foil. Which was a way of communicating, which is very different than today’s hip-hop. It was something that definitely went into shaping who I am today.

I remember one time I was talking to Jay Smooth—cause he was born the same year as me, in the '70s, and we mix academic lingo with street lingo or whatever and I’ll hear like ‘you don’t have to talk like you’re in hip hop.’ But I thought 'I’m not adapting a culture, it’s my culture that everybody else is adapting.' I was just being myself and he got that. We were this little culture of kids that felt like tunnel rats, who basically ended up inspiring everything from language to fashion to a kind of so called high culture.

What were some of your best memories as a young girl in that culture?
What really took me over the edge, what gassed me up, was when Red Head King Pin came to one of our parties. You couldn’t tell me anything. That was definitely one of my highlights.

And then also, I was a very disengaged student, so I would cut school a lot. I would go to Washington Square Park and I remember just chilling looking back and looking around and seeing Russell Simmons and all these people that I would end up being cool with or working for. They would walk pass me and I'd think ‘one day I’m going to work for that guy, one day I’m going to do this and that.’ Just to see how all these things ended up connecting, that to me affirms that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

How was it like for you working at One World as a young woman? Was it male dominated?
It was definitely male dominated being at One World, but I had a publisher named John Pasamore that was very supportive with everything that I was doing. He allowed me to take chances. And because of that, even though he was a guy, I was able to do a lot of things that were interesting in the magazine. And because I was always a tomboy, I didn’t really care about dealing with men. I just deal with them the way I would deal with anybody. I’m from New York City. I grew up in the 'hood. I’m always used to dealing with male dominated spaces, so for me that wasn’t an issue.

The issue for me was making the magazine something that was really global, that was adult and that it showed hip-hop for what it was and what it had the potential to become. What it has become, for better or for worse, it has become the most important youth export to ever come out of the United States of America. So I really enjoyed my time there, and to this day I still think that we were way ahead of the curve back then. Sometimes when I think about what we covered back then, and I think to myself ‘It would make sense today.’

I love how you put Omahyra Mota on the cover…
Yeah, because I didn’t know any Dominican-Americans—I’m Dominican-American—at the time who were in the culture real thick. It didn’t matter that much because for me, as a Dominican-American, the part of me that’s American is from this well that we all come from, which is Africa. And indigenous America links us to our black American brothers and sisters, and our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Happy #HaitianindependenceDay to our brothers and sisters on the west side of the isle!!! #Ayiti #quisqueya

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

How do you define the term AfroLatina?
I don’t define the term AfroLatina, because I don’t like defining terms of identity, because they mean something different to everybody.

Would you consider yourself one?
I’m a Dominiyorkian of mixed decent. If you read my book you will find that I’m mixed and that I am just one example of the many of how the New World came to be. I’m the genetic evidence that the New World happened. So can't just turn my back on one side of my culture and just call myself one thing. I feel like I’d be selling out the parts of who I am for better or for worse. Because there are things that we have in our blood that we don’t want to have; that we don’t want to admit. That we don’t want to reconcile with. For example, growing up I always thought as the European man as the aggressor, but when you have European blood running down your veins too, you have to come to terms with that.

Why do you think it’s important for our mental health to find our DNA? Especially when it comes to young Latinas who are at most risk for suicide than their counterparts, which you explore in your new documentary Some Girls.
Not everybody can afford to go on an ancestral DNA quest and trace all of their ancestry, right? Some people are not in touch with their family members, and some people don’t have that desire. I thought it was interesting and I had a desire to that testing because I was just wondering ‘Ok, what are we?’ And using myself as an example, I just said ‘Let me just go in with my fist unclenched and my heart open.'

When I went on the quest, I was able to meet people I hadn’t known were related to me, and find information about them. What I found out, which is detailed in my book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, was that my background was West African, Pre-Colombian, Indigenous American, Berber and English or Welsh. I’m not sure which side because they have the similar genetic makeup. And it re-affirmed to me that we are the physical evidence of how this new world, the Americas came to be.

It shows me that even though I’m being told that my people are illegal and that I don’t have any kind of agency in North America—to be Latino is to be American. The very essence of being Latino is to be American. That kind of grounds me and it also makes me feel like I am a part of this continuum of the narrative of human kind, of how the world has evolved. So for me it’s important, and that goes also to mental health. They don’t teach you that in school. When you go to school they teach that the people who made America and any kind of success here were white and American. So then, when I find out my ancestry and see that it took everybody to make this, it makes you feel more grounded and more part of your society. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the community.

When you don’t feel disenfranchised, you’re apart of something. It makes you kind of act differently and talk differently and do things differently. It kind of makes you feel like you have agency, and it makes you feel confident to do other things, which is why in my documentary, Some Girls, I embarked in a genetic ancestral DNA journey with a few girls from a suicide prevention program to show them that they come from people that survive.

My father’s ancestral mitochondrial DNA is pre-Columbian. My direct maternal DNA is West African. These people had to find a way, despite the indigenous slave trade, despite Columbus bum-rushing the New World, despite the transatlantic slave trade, despite the re-writing of history, they had to find a way to survive in my body. So it makes me even look at myself, like my body is a temple. And it makes me look at everything in a more holistic, spiritual way.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, East of Broadway?
Like in all my projects I try to be very balanced,  because I’m artist and I represent things the way I see them. For me it’s a memoir about my community in flux, and it’s me trying to kind of work out the fact that I’m in the middle. I’m from a generation where we 're traveled, we’re educated and a lot of times we have found ourselves having things in common with people that live for example on the west side of Broadway—the gentrifiers.

And then I grew up in the hood, right, that hood in the "battle days." I hate that term, by the way. Even though I grew up in Inwood during the time it had the highest crime rates, I found community and love there. I found people that took care of me there. It instilled in me the passion and the creative impulses to do everything that I have done ever since. So I’m trying to find a way to represent both sides in my book. Because I am in the middle, I left and I came back. I came back with a little bit more cash and a different way of thinking.

How do you feel about gentrification?
I also have a huge problem with gentrification, because I feel like the people that stuck it out and fought to build a community and better streets and put themselves in peril, they deserve to be able benefit from the beautification of the 'hood. So what I want to do is explore the question: why is it when people that are perceived to be white move into a area it becomes gentrified? But when people that are perceived to be brown and black move in, it's the 'hood, the slums? How does race play into that? And does it play into that today? Those are the questions that I’m interested in exploring in the book that I’m working on right now.

What do you think about the 2016 election?
Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Obviously it’s going to be between Hillary and Bernie. But I have a hard time reconciling the Clinton years with this war on drugs that was perpetuated against kids I grew up with.

I actually was living to see my friends and my family become casualties of the war on drugs and I saw what it did to my community and then I look at it today as one example of the war on drugs. I see how they are calling for us to have a kinder strategy with dealing with the war on drugs, because the face of it has turned white. But why wasn’t it like that when my black, Haitian and Latino American counterparts were suffering through that? Why did they have to be ravaged, while one community get to be coddled? I have an issue with that, but I also think it’s very important to have experience when you’re in office, and I feel like Hillary has a lot of experience when in office. Though, I like Bernie’s energy. It just can’t be Trump.

How did you first start getting into boxing?
I grew up in a very violent home, so I always had to defend myself. I had to learn how to put my hands up. I grew up also in a different time, were it was kind of violent. I grew up fighting in the street. I always wanted to be a boxer, but I wasn’t allowed to. I’ve always liked the sport. I remember my favorite boxer of all time was Lucia Rijker. I always wanted to be like her. As I've gotten older, it’s spectacular how I got into it. Sacha and I after dating for six years, on our first year of our marriage, we were just eating, screwing around and living. And the end of that year, I was in Santo Domingo and one of my mentors/closest friends Dr. Frank Moya Pons, asked ‘Do you work out? So I thought 'That’s it, I have to change, this is a sign from the universe I have to change.'

I just said I’m starting on Monday, I’m going to this Mendez boxing with my husband or not. And when I came in, none of the trainers believed that I could box in the ring. I took to it very quickly, and one thing lead to another and I started competing. I love it. It helps me write, and work out my issues. It helps me workout my stress and it helps me stay in shape, and it helps me keep up with my son who is turning 4 in a couple of weeks. It also helps me feel good. It helps me release. There is nothing like being in the ring, hitting somebody with all my might and then watching that s**t. I’m not going to front, I like going in and f**king s**t up. I enjoy it. [Laughs]

What advice would you give young women?
For young women in general I would say take the time out to really do the work to be selfish. And do the work in investing in yourself and identifying yourself and challenging people’s perceptions and challenge those check boxes that society forces you into and create your own. Create your own identity, redefine what is out there and don’t allow anybody to cram you in anything.

I feel like I wish I would have done more investing when I was younger in exploring my own self. I’ve done a lot of work on it. I wish I would have done more when I was younger, because knowledge of self is power, and there is nothing like that feeling than having knowledge and being powerful when you walk in these murky waters of 2016. So I would say take the time to really invest.

I would actually say this to my own daughter who is 19. You know, people tell her she isn’t one thing enough, or Latina enough, or black American enough or that enough. But thank God she is like me. She doesn’t really give a s**t about what anybody says at the end of the day because she knows who she is. When you know who you are, you don’t feel the pressure of having to stay that way. Since identity is like water, it shifts. We change every three years. Be like water. Keep on changing, keep on flowing, keep on growing. My other advice would be to really bridge the gap with and extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything.

#Baenation. ?? The #daughter and I. ??

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

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Kamaiyah / (GRND.WRK/EMPIRE)

Kamaiyah On Long-Awaited Debut 'Got It Made,' Independent Status

On a cloudy afternoon in New York City, rapper Kamaiyah is dressed for comfort, wearing a purple sweatsuit, and the purple beads adorning her signature box braids match her fit. She’s made a stop at the VIBE office during a day of interviews, accompanied by a crew of three women, including her newly appointed A&R Justice Davis. Kamaiyah is observing more than speaking, preserving her voice since she is recovering from a nuisance cold. But the East Oakland native’s energy switches from laidback to zealous as we discuss her lead single “Still I Am” for Got It Made, her long-delayed forthcoming project dropping February 21.

 

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After almost 4 years I present to you my project “ Got It Made “ 2•21•20 the wait is over we going up and this mutha fucka slap 💁🏾‍♀️ flood my comments with 500 ☂️’s and I’ll drop a song tonight 👀 (Presave link in my bio)

A post shared by Kamaiyah🧿 (@kamaiyah) on Feb 3, 2020 at 11:00am PST

On the CT Beats track, the go-to producer for her hypnotic g-funk sound, she earnestly raps, “I done took plenty losses/ That's why I feel like I deserve to keep flossin'/ This shit is exhausting/ When you boss up and run your own office.” The verses point to her departure from Interscope Records and YG’s 4 Hunnid Records and the launch of her new label GRND.WRK (pronounced groundwork), in partnership with Empire last August. She decided to dip after the release date for her project Something To Ride To was pushed back multiple times. This makes Kamaiyah one of few women in hip-hop, and perhaps the first from the West Coast, to run her own shop.

“It's very important and vital because a lot of people feel you need a man to make you an artist,” Kamaiyah said. “You need a man to mold you into what you need to be.” But Kamaiyah — who has been rapping since she was 9, recording in the studio since she was 11, and dropped a critically acclaimed mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto (2016) before she was signed to a major deal — already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be before she signed on the dotted line.

In the months since she left the label, she began building her office in the upstairs area of her loft; finished recording, mixing and mastering Got It Made, a project she was planning before she parted from Interscope; and her manager Brandon Moore became her partner on her new venture. 2020 will be the first year Kamaiyah has full control of her career since breaking into the mainstream hip-hop world in 2016. This was always part of her master plan and why the previous arrangement did not fit her.

“I signed too fast, but I never wanted to sign,” she reflects. “I was always the artist that was like, I don't want no deal. I want to hustle because I knew where I come from. Everybody does it independently. But at that time it was the best decision for everybody. I took that L for the team and we learned a lot. It was like four years of music business school.”

Kamaiyah wants to carry on in the spirit of Bay Area hip-hop legends like E-40, known for their independent spirit of hustling their CDs out of their car trunks. But she also wants the pop accolades of hip-hop superstars like Drake, Missy Elliot, and Oakland’s original hip-hop icon MC Hammer. Her biggest hit to date is YG’s "Why You Always Hatin?” also featuring Drake, which charted at no. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. But she wants more. Success for Kamaiyah means Grammys, Billboard no. 1s, and gold and platinum plaques. Partnering with Empire, a digital-first independent distributor, and a label launched by San Francisco native Ghazi Shami in 2010, could be her winning ticket. In the past decade, Empire’s launched several successful hip-hop projects such as Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album and Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu. This partnership can give Kamaiyah the independence and support toward the mass appeal she’s seeking. Having dealt with project release delays in the past, her strategy going forward is consistency.

“Great quality music at a rapid rate...People just want to see you [working]. And if they know you consistent, they gon’ consume the music.” Kamaiyah also wants to use her platform to sign new talent, especially in the Bay Area, where she said artists can benefit from music business education when their records go viral. “Once they get the traction and the record, it becomes this egotistical thing and it's like ‘I made it cause I'm cracking out here.’ But they don't realize it's a whole world to build towards.”

Her first project Got It Made will be the blueprint for GRND.WRK. The project is feel-good music her fans “can shake their asses to and vibe out to and ride out to,” she said. For instance, she teamed up with veteran Trina for the f**k boy revenge track “Set It Up.” They role-play as two women who have been cheated on by the same man. “We get together and we go against the ni**a instead of us going against each other,” Kamaiyah says. On “Get Ratchet,” which she calls a “modern bounce” record, she taps DJ Espinosa, a San Francisco native known for winning Red Bull Music’s 3Style DJ competition, to spin at the end of the track. For “Digits,” a song about getting someone’s number, she brings on fellow Oakland rapper Capolow, a newcomer she’s excited to give a bigger platform to. She describes the track as “magical gangsta sh*t.” On past projects, Kamaiyah sampled 80s and 90s R&B (i.e. “I’m On” and “Leave Em”) but says the only track on Got It Made that has a sample is “1-800-IM-HORNY.” She intentionally avoided the high cost of clearances, an obstacle contributing to past project delays. She won’t mention names but says she enlisted “legends who created those records that we’re sampling” to shape the project's sound. Fans can expect Kamaiyah to begin touring the project in April.

Although she’s finally releasing her project, her fans might be curious about the status of her other promised records such as Woke and Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. Will they see the light of day? “Anything I did at that part of my life I have PTSD from,” Kamaiyah said frankly. “It was done with good intentions, but then it became something negative and when you put that out, the world is going to feel that. And energy is transferable so I'm not putting out that shit.”

While Kamaiyah was facing career obstacles in recent years, she witnessed the impact of tragedies close to her community. The death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was murdered at a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2018, hit close to home as Kamaiyah has family close to Wilson’s family. (John Lee Cowell, who is accused of stabbing Wilson to death, is currently on trial.) “Do I feel like he should be convicted? Absolutely. To the furthest extent. You took this woman's life. She barely got to live.” Then there was Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019. Kamaiyah said she had a long talk with Nip a month before he was killed last March. He wanted to see her reach her full potential, especially as a woman representing the Bay Area. “He’s telling me, ‘What you mean to our culture we never had’,” Kamaiyah said. That last conversation put the battery in her back when she was on the fence about her music. “I'm frustrated career-wise and that's a person that was like, ‘Don't stop because we need you in this culture.’ So I gotta hustle 10 times harder ‘cause other people see the long end of the vision.”

Justice Davis, Kamaiyah’s A&R, is ready for Kamaiyah’s vision to come to life. Davis began working as Moore’s assistant and after giving input, moved up the ranks. As a Los Angeles native, Davis said she brings the knowledge of her city’s culture together with Kamaiyah’s Oakland hustle. She wants to see Kamaiyah grow as a businesswoman, artist, and for their team to prosper. “[I hope] for people to see her talent and know she really is the queen of the West coast."

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Jack Dempsey for Crown Royal Apple

Joe Freshgoods Put On For Chicago With Royal Apple Goods Collection & Pop-Up

The Windy City's chilly air seeps into the building as the main door cracks wide open. Busy crew members scurry between rooms, ensuring every fixture and branded display is arranged perfectly before the clock strikes 3 o'clock. A group of focused workers huddles nearby to go over loose ends and delegated tasks. Throwback hip-hop jams float throughout the warehouse, teasing the chill vibes to come. Time is of the essence and it's almost showtime; Confirmed guests will soon start trickling into Moonlight Studios in the next hour or so. It's the calm before the storm at The Royal Pop-Up, a two-day event curated by Crown Royal Regal Apple and its creative director, streetwear designer extraordinaire Joe "Freshgoods" Robinson.

In the first room to the right, a crew of black, swagged-out mannequins stands tall in the middle of the room, rocking yellow hoodies, black and white tees, pants and bandanas etched in J-F-G, Crown Royal, and red apples. With the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend serving as the backdrop, fashion and basketball enthusiasts alike are set to get an exclusive glimpse of the limited-edition capsule collection, Royal APPLE GOODS, designed by Chicago native Freshgoods in collaboration with the Canadian whiskey brand.

Not too far away stands the DJ of the night, fellow creative and entrepreneur, Vic Lloyd, setting up his station as he prepares to set the musical energy for part of the day. To the left of him, a pair of workers in all-black prep the tote bags they'll be pressing with APPLE GOODS' design and logos. In another room to the far left, nail artists Tacarra "Spifster" Sutton and Slay Lewis are settling into their stations where they'll be taking manicure appointments to deck out the nails of anyone looking to add an extra flair to their fit. Two barber chairs are about 20 feet away for attendees down for a fresh cut or a quick line-up by the South Side's own Roger “Rodge” Williams of Raw Cutting Room.

Staying true to his hometown has always been Freshgoods' wave. While getting his feet wet as an intern at Leaders 1354 and working at Fashion Geek, he started his own apparel brand Don't Be Mad, eventually co-founded Fat Tiger Workshop with Lloyd and others, and caught the eye of major brands like adidas, McDonald's, New Era, and more. So it's no surprise that Freshgoods hand-selected some of his home city's top creators and makers to help make the pop-up experience that much more authentic and true to Chicago.

In the last room, friendly bartenders are preparing the Regal Apple Bar where specialty cocktails will be served in golden cups. On the opposite side, a sneaker cleaning station is ready to keep guests' kicks crispy, while two framed, Crown Royal Regal Apple-themed backdrops are perched in front of a brick wall, perfect for those looking to capture the moment in the form of a picture.

In an unused room in the back of the studio space sits Joe Freshgoods, relaxing on a black, plush couch, rocking the hoodie from the Royal APPLE GOODS collection, a pair of loose-fitted, tie-dye pants and his latest, sold-out New Balance 992 collaborative shoe. Despite the craziness that is All-Star Weekend and a jam-packed schedule of appearances and connecting with friends, Freshgoods is chill, present, and ready to chat about working with Crown Royal, Chicago’s underestimated fashion scene, his favorite '90s fashion trend and more.

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Tell us about the Royal Apple Goods capsule collection. What inspired the designs?

Royal Apple Goods was pretty much inspired by basketball, my love of lettering and a bit of my colorway. I wanted to make cool basketball merch. Just stuff that you can go to the gym in and rock. I just wanted to make it a dope basketball-themed collection.

We noticed that you decided to work with some fellow Chicagoans for different parts of this pop-up. Why was that important to you?

Oftentimes, when these big activations pop up in different cities, they never really tap into the community. It was pretty dope to be able to have my people around town who I collaborate with —a lot of the barbers, DJs, artists, nail techs, people that are moving and shaking in Chicago. Everybody that's working in each booth [at this event] is someone that people respect. I think if we're doing a project in a city as big as Chicago, you want guests and people to recognize, "Oh, that's [Spifster] the nail tech." Because a lot of these people are really booked. You don't often get to see these artists in one room at one time. Like Rodge, you’ve got to book him two weeks in advance. I know with Spif, she's booked six months in advance. It's rare to be in an area where you can just go from station to station, get merch from me, get your nails done by the hottest nail person, get your hair done, and listen to good tunes. It was just important to just tap in with the local community. It just made sense.

With your style mantra being "Clothes is art defined by the times," how do you define today's time in fashion?

I think for me, you hear that streetwear is dying and that it's always like a thing where I still thrive on the art of, "Oh, wow." I love merch related to a time, you know? Everybody that gets my merch today and tomorrow, it's going to be dope to say, "Yo, I went to this event that Joe helped put on, and he had merch."

I love making clothing like concert merch. That's my whole vibe. If I was a rapper that did a show in Chicago, this would be my merch for that show, you know? That's how I approach a lot of my products with different brands. This is what I wanted to do with Crown that made sense for the community. Right now, I've got the hottest shoes dropping today, but I'm doing something different with Crown Royal. I like to give some stuff away, so this feels good.

If you were to create say a retro '90s fit, what would that look like? What's Joe wearing from that decade?

I was always a fan of the Naughty By Nature overall. I don't know. I like that rugged Timberland...I just like that real rugged, man-man, streetwear look, you know? Obviously, I love to dress colorfully, but I've always been a fan of that construction worker wave of the early '90s. That was with all the sweatsuits and all. That's always been my wave. Yeah, real Treach, Naughty By Nature vibes.

In a recent interview, you mentioned how Chicago kind of plays the little sister to other cities and is often overlooked or left out in different ways. What do you think this week means for your home city when it comes to fashion, the culture, and everything?

I think this week is very important. When Chicago first got the news that there was going to be a very big basketball week, it was pretty dope. This is one of the first times since being a kid to have all these people from out of town here. Since I've been an adult, there hasn't been a Super Bowl here or anything. I don't know, and we had this big thing about Chicago where it's like, "Am I safe here?" But it's a beautiful city.

The Royal Pop Up was a vibe during #NBAAllStar weekend. Here's what you missed: https://t.co/etxoU0pPnp pic.twitter.com/gVS4nmmUHt

— Vibe Magazine (@VibeMagazine) February 20, 2020

I think it's one of the top food cities to me, in my opinion. Yes, it's a cold city, but it's pretty awesome to see all these events going on. All this positivity. Complex Con was here. That was big, but this is bigger. It's so cool to see all my peers doing their projects, and everybody supporting each other. There's no beef. Everybody's about community. It feels good. With this big basketball weekend, I'm glad so many people are getting to experience Chicago for the first time like this.

It's insane and to imagine the last time All-Star Weekend was here a little over 30 years ago? It's a sigh of relief for Chicago to be a city of attraction where people are comfortably out and about versus being in Cali or Los Angeles.

Exactly.

With the NBA All-Star game set to honor the late Kobe Bryant, what’s one of your favorite memories of Kobe?

Kobe was so serious on the court. He performed to the highest level. Every time he stepped off the court, and you saw Kobe in commercials, it was like whoa. I was always a big fan of his commercials, especially the one with Kanye. When he was dancing with Tony Hawk...it was always dope to see that, "Oh, he’s human," even though he was a shark on the court.

Every time Kobe would just make people laugh. In certain in-game moments, he would dance a little bit. He was so stern on the court, but every time Kobe showed personality, every time he was a comedian, it was just funny because it was coming from Kobe.

As a man of many talents, can we expect you to indulge in any other endeavors? What's next? Joe Freshgoods: The Movie? 

Not yet (laughs). I'm really just trying to expand the brand. Right now, I'm building a really great team. I think teamwork is so key to movement. For so long, I was so used to doing things myself, but within the last three, four years of just having a team, it's felt like there are endless possibilities. I'm just kind of expanding. I'm really big on pop-up shops. It's something that I've honed in on as my thing, being able to connect with different communities across the world. I kind of want to get bigger at that. That's the goal for the next few years is to just kind of expand on these pop-up moments, and make them live a little longer in different cities.

What inspired you to take the pop-up shop route with your brand?

It's pretty simple. It's like the Master P formula when it comes to going from state to state selling your mixtape as opposed to having your mixtape in Target, or Best Buy, or in Sam Goody. For example, I could make more money going to New Orleans. No brand ever goes to New Orleans to show love. But with me, I pull up with my team, we do a pop-up in NOLA and actually get to touch the community.

Traditional retail is kind of dying in the sense of going to New York and opening up a big store. That whole model is changing to the point where now I can go to a certain area and pop-up for five days, and do well, go to L.A. and then go to Houston, you know? With that formula, a lot of brands can't do that, but I can and I'm going to keep doing it.

Lastly, if the Royal APPLE GOODS collection had an accompanying playlist, what three songs would be on it?

Ooh, that's a really good one. Aw, man. The Bulls theme song (“Sirius” by the Alan Parson's Project). That's one, that's just a vibe right there. Man, I need a toxic Future song (laughs) Okay, "March Madness" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile." Yeah, I like that.

Additional reporting by Obehi Imarenezor

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Scotch Porter

Scotch Porter Founder Calvin Quallis Talks New Haircare Line, Self Care Beyond Products

Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts  in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.

This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.

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VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?

Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.

VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?

I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.

VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?

At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.

 

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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. ⁠With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 11, 2020 at 10:01am PST

VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching. 

We’re launching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.

VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?

I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.

VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?

Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.

VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.

It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.

VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.

Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.

 

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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:55pm PST

VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?

On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.

VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?

One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.

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