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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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Tekashi 6ix9ine Identifies Cardi B And Jim Jones As Nine Trey Members And More Takeaways (Day 3)

Daniel "Tekashi 6ix9ine" Hernandez's witness testimony continues to shock the masses. On Thursday (Sept. 19), the rapper took the stand again to elaborate on his kidnapping as well as interviews he gave about his broken relationship with members of the Nine Trey gang.

Interviews by Angie Martinez and Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club were analyzed due to the rapper's subtle jabs towards his former manager Shotti and defendant Anthony "Harv" Ellison. 6ix9ine's social media personality was also broken down as he explained the definitions of trolling and dry snitching.

But perhaps the most questionable part of his testimony arrived when he name-dropped Cardi B and Jim Jones as members of the Nine Trey Gangster Bloods.

Below are some of the biggest takeaways from today.

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Day 3 1. Tekashi Claims Cardi B And Jim Jones Are Members Of Nine Trey Gang

Hernandez provided context to a wiretapped conversation between alleged Nine Trey godfather Jamel "Mel Murda" Jones and rapper Jim Jones. Complex notes a leaked 'individual-1' transcription revealed who appeared to be Jim Jones. During Mel Murder and Jim Jones conversation, the two discussed Hernandez's status as a Nine Trey member.

"He not a gang member no more," Jones reportedly said. "He was never a gang member. They going to have to violate shorty because shorty is on some bullshit." Hernandez went on to identify Jones as a "retired" rapper and a member of the Nine Trey.

Prosecutors play phone call between Nine Trey godfather Mel Murda and rapper Jim Jones. Tekashi says Jones is in Nine Trey.Jones: "He not a gang member no more. He was never a gang member. They going to have to violate shorty because shorty is on some bull--it."

— Stephen Brown (@PPVSRB) September 19, 2019

When it comes to Cardi B, the rapper named the Bronx native as a Nine Trey member. He was also strangely asked if he copies Cardi's alleged blueprint of aligning herself with gang members in her early music videos. "I knew who she was. I didn’t pay attention,” he said. In a statement to Billboard, Atlantic Records denied 6ix9ine's claims that she was a member of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. 

In a now-deleted tweet on her official Twitter account, Cardi B responded to the allegation writing clarifying her affiliation, “You just said it yourself…Brim not 9 Trey. I never been 9 trey or associated with them.”

2. Tekashi Defines The Term "Dry Snitching"

In a quick back and forth with AUSA Micheal Longyear, the rapper gave an odd definition of dry snitching. He also made it clear that he was open to becoming a witness to reduce his prison sentence.

Q: Who is Jim Jones?#6ix9ine: He's a retired rapper.Q: Is he a member of Nine Trey?A: Yes.

— Inner City Press (@innercitypress) September 19, 2019

3. Tekashi Was Willing To Pay Hitmen $50,000 To Take Out Friend Who Kidnapped Him

Shortly after he was kidnapped by Harv, the rapper went on Angie Martinez to slam those in his camp. Without saying names, Hernandez promised he would seek revenge on those behind the kidnapping. The court was then showed footage of the incident which was recorded in the car of Jorge Rivera who was already a cooperating witness in the case. Hernandez reportedly confirmed he wanted to pay a hitman $50,000 on Harv after the kidnapping.

4. He Believed He Was "Too Famous" To Hold Gun Used In Assault Against Rap-A-Lot Artist"

The alleged robbery of Rap-A-Lot artist was brought up once again when Hernandez confirmed that he recorded the incident. A weapon allegedly used in the incident was tossed to Hernandez by his former manager Shotti. When asked why he refused to hold the gun the rapper said, "I'm too famous to get out the car with a gun." As previously reported, the rapper was kicked out of the car after the incident in Times Square and was forced to take the subway back to Brooklyn with the gun.

5. Tekashi May Be Released As Early As 2020

Cross-exam Q: If you get time served you'd get out at the beginning of next year, correct?#6ix9ine: Correct.

— Inner City Press (@innercitypress) September 19, 2019

There's that.

6. Footage Exists Of Tekashi Pretending He Was Dead

Harv's lawyer Deveraux: Do you recall publishing a video pretending you were dead?#6ix9ine: Can you show me? For now, a private viewing.

— Inner City Press (@innercitypress) September 19, 2019

Before wrapping up, the court briefly touched on his trolling ways. From setting up beefs to strange notions like faking his death, the videos were viewed privately.

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Tekashi is seen in Los Angeles, CA on November 8, 2018.
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Nine Trey Trial: 4 Takeaways From Tekashi 6ix9ine's Testimony (Day 2)

The second day of Daniel "Tekashi 6ix9ine" Hernandez's witness testimony provided insight into the handlings of several incidents surrounding the rapper including the attempted shootings of rappers Casanova, Chief Keef and former labelmate, Trippie Redd.

As Complex reported Wednesday (Sept. 18), Judge Paul Engelmayer noted the leak of the rapper's testimony that hit YouTube by way of VladTV. Shortly after, Hernandez explained how the Trey Nine gang began to fall apart–or split into four groups–leaving him to take sides. In the end, Hernandez was robbed and kidnapped by his own manager as video footage revealed. The rapper explained how his initial deal turned into extortion as he provided over $80,000 to the gang.

See more details from the trial below. Hernandez will take the stand again Thursday (Sept. 21).

Day 2 1. Tekashi Arranged A Hit On Chief Keef For $20,000

The hit against Keef was widely reported last year but Hernandez provided clarity to the incident. The rapper admitted to arranging a hit on the Chicago rapper after a dispute over "my friend Cuban," a reference to rapper Cuban Doll. Although Hernandez planned to provide the gunman with $20,000 he paid him $10,000 since the hitman fired one shot and subsequently missed.

2. 6ix9ine Credits Anthony “Harv” Ellison For Barclays Center Shooting 

 

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A post shared by Tr3y (@tr3yway_ent) on Sep 6, 2019 at 3:11pm PDT

Hernandez's brief beef with fellow Brooklyn rapper Casanova sprouted from Cas' diss song, "Set Trippin.'" After hearing it, Hernandez said he was ready to "run down" on the rapper. Seqo Billy tipped him off about Cas' alliance to the Bloods set, the Apes and how they would more than likely retaliate if Cas is harmed.

“There’s a kite out saying if any apes happen to cross ya path to fire on you or anybody around you… smarten up,” Seqo wrote in a group chat presented in court. Ellison allegedly replied, “Apes can fire on this dick… They don’t want to war with Billy’s [Nine Trey]." From there, several shootings took place in Brooklyn with one inside the Barclays Center.

3. Tekashi's Beef With Rap-A-Lot Crew Caused Bigger Fallout With Trey Nine 

Hernandez went on to detail the very complicated story behind his beef with Rap-A-Lot records. The debacle started when Tekashi and the Treyway crew didn't "check-in" with Jas Prince before taking the stage at Texas' South by Southwest in March 2018. The incident was further muffled since Trey Nine members like Ellison and Billy Ato were beefing with Hernandez and Shotti at the time. In the end, Hernadez never performed. His crew would later go on to rob and attack an artist from Rap-A-Lot in New York a month later.

4. Footage of the Robbery/Fight Was Filmed By Hernandez aka 6ix9ine

As he and Shotti fled the scene, Shotti kicked the rapper out the car forcing him to take the train to Brooklyn with a gun in his possession. All of the incidents led up to the kidnapping scenario which Herdanaez claimed was in no way staged.

“I’m pleading with Harv,” Hernandez said. “I’m telling him, ‘Don’t shoot. I gave you everything. I put money in your pocket.’ I told him that I was tired of being extorted.” The robbery/kidnapping was filmed by Ellison but also recorded by Hernadez's driver Jorge Rivera who was already a cooperating witness in the case.

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Gary Gershof

Jeremy O. Harris Is Prepared To Make You Uncomfortable With 'Slave Play'

September is a tricky time in New York City. Some days the ninth month can be charming with its cool breeze and clear skies, you forget Old Man Winter is three months away. Other days, September is deceitfully chilly dropping 10 or 15 degrees after sunset. You hug yourself to create warmth and to also block shame for not knowing summer has packed its bags. On the fifth day of September in New York’s East Village, the weather, however, is kind. Clouds like stretched cotton balls float through the sky, while the sun peeks through adding just enough heat without being arresting. It was, like Bill Withers described, a lovely day.

The beauty of the weather was only matched by Jeremy O.Harris’ bold yet inviting presence. Wearing head-to-toe Telfar Clemens, the Yale School of Drama playwright mingled with friends, castmates and the press inside the penthouse suite of The Standard. Holding the last puffs of a loosie and a black purse, O’Harris and I make eye contact. He smiles. I wave and a second later he's pulled into another round of congratulations, cheek kisses, and praise.

Such is the life of an award-winning playwright.

Harris’ production Slave Play earned chatter while at the New York Theater Workshop and has since made its way to Broadway, making the 30-year-old the youngest playwright of color to accomplish the feat. Yet before the mecca to the world's theatrical stage, Slave Play merited quite the hubbub and scathing critiques for its plot. Set on the MacGregor plantation in the antebellum south, three interracial couples work through their relationship woes made present by their sexual disconnect.

And that’s all that will be said about Slave Play. The rest must be witnessed to be understood or at least examined. Harris knows the play will make many uncomfortable and he's okay with that. The Virginia native stands at a towering 6-foot-5 and has always known his mere presence was off-putting to some. Add his Afro to the mix and Harris, a black queer man with hair that defies gravity, is too much to digest. Thankfully, he doesn't care.

He walks over to the terrace and we both lean in for a hug but stop prematurely and settle on a professional yet distant handshake.

“Are you a hugger?” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles.

Relief. Huggers finally able to hug.

O’Harris is pressed for time so we only chat for 15 minutes but we gag over both being Geminis, talk about white discomfort, why, of all names to give a play, was Slave Play the best choice and whether or not white America can fully love black people.

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VIBE: When creating Slave Play was white discomfort ever a thought?

Jeremy O. Harris: I had this moment with someone the other day and we were talking about the importance of mirrors and seeing each other inside the mirrors of the set. Well, the reason the idea came about was because at Yale the theater was in a three-quarter thrust and the second year project is one of the smallest projects to do. The audience, I think, is 70 people every night. It wasn’t a huge audience, maybe 90, I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s a three-quarter thrust. I went to Yale at a historic time. There were more people of color there than at any other time. The craziest thing about the show for me was while watching, I saw all the people of color checking in with one another throughout the play and them having these moments of revelation together and looking at white people like, "Why are you laughing then?"

I make people uncomfortable. I make people who are straight uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do, I do loudly by accident.

What’s your sign? I’m a Gemini.

Oh my God! I’m a Gemini. When’s your birthday? June 2nd.

I'm June 17. (Laughs) I think being a Gemini is also part of why I live loudly. I don’t shy away from who I am. My hair has always been big. People might eroticize my hair or fetishize my hair but they’re still uncomfortable by it because their hair can’t do this. Also, because I went to predominately white institutions as a child, I learned quickly that my intellect made people uncomfortable.

Were you usually the smartest one in the room? Yeah, or at least the teacher would say that. I think part of the problem with growing up in the south is everything is so racialized, even compliments. It would be "he’s smarter than the white kids and the black kids."

Did you have any other names for the play besides Slave Play? For me, titles are what make a play and the minute I thought of this play was the minute I was thinking about all of the different slave films. The first thing I thought about was on Twitter there was this whole discussion about 12 Years of Slave with people saying, "Why do we always have to be in a slave movie?" and then I thought, "Oh, a slave movie. There are so many slave plays...Oh, Slave Play!

There’s a litany of narratives that can come from that and a litany of histories that come from that. I was like, "Let me try and make something that was the end all be all of these histories" for at least me. It doesn’t have to be the end all be all for the next writer who wants to interrogate these similar ideas and similar histories, but it gets to be my one foray into this question.

I saw Slave Play off-Broadway and it was a lot to take in. However, I think the play isn’t so much about interracial relationships as it is white people’s relationship with black people. Am I correct?

I think you are. I’ve never written a play that’s going to be about one thing.

Because you aren’t one thing.

Exactly. One of my professors said the problem with a lot of American writers is that they write plays that function like similies. This is like this, whereas in the U.K. and Europe and a lot of places I love, those places function like metaphors. I wanted to have a play that functioned as a metaphor. So it’s not like, "Being in an interracial couple is like..." It’s "An interracial couple is" and it becomes a container for a lot of different histories and a lot of different confluences of conflict which I think are important.

Relationships can become an amazing space of interrogation for a lot of our interpersonal relationships, our historical relationships and our thematic, deeply guarded emotional truths that we haven’t worked out on a macro, but we can work them out on this microcosm of a relationship in a way like white-American politics and black-American politics are also in this weird symbiotic relationship.

Do you think white America can ever fully love black people?

I think love is something that’s beyond words. I think its something we have to only know in action in the same way that I don’t know if black America will or should ever love white America, do you know what I mean? How do you love something that’s harmed you so deeply?

Super facts.

But then again, if we’re using relationships as metaphors, [then] we’ve seen people try and make sense of that love in a lot of different ways. You see black America’s relationship to capitalism, which is something that benefits whiteness more than it could ever benefit us, yet there is this sort of weird romance that happens in so much of our music. So much of our literature and so much of our art, with the idea of capitalism even with its own interrogation and criticisms. But there is this weird push and pull. It’s similar to someone who’s in this battered relationship with an ex-lover.

I read you didn’t expect to receive so much criticism from the black community. How did that make you feel? 

It made me feel sad and reflective in a lot of ways. I wanted to make theater for a certain audience and, for me, the best vehicle for making theater for that audience was the Internet. I was like, "How can I flood the Internet with these ideas about what my plays are so I can maybe get a new audience into the theater with more excitement?" And that worked in a certain way. What I didn’t take into account was that I basically asked everyone to learn how to ride a horse bareback without ever learning the fundamentals of riding a horse.

People were interrogating the ideas on the Internet of what this play might be without an understanding of how the theater functions, and so I think that made them feel very displaced from what this play was, and when you feel displaced from something you have to react to it. I don’t blame anyone for their reactions to the title or the images they saw. Some of those images aren’t images I would’ve ever wanted people to interrogate without the context of the theater. In hindsight, I now know, like, "Okay, cool." I do this experiment and I saw some of the false positives of it and I saw the actual positives of it and now I can move on and keep building and repair the relationship. I get to now watch it with more careful eyes.

What questions do you hope white people ask themselves?

I think the whole play is about: how can people listen in a way that’s not shallow but deeply? I think at this moment a lot of white theater audiences believe they’re listening deeply to the black artists that are having this moment right now. But I think when you read the words they write about it, and the quickness with which they have an opinion about it, you recognize they’re not listening deeply. So quickly they’re telling us what they think we said and it’s like, "No, take a second, and let us speak on it." Take a step back.

Slave Play is playing at the John Golden Theater. Get your tickets here.

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