raquel-cepeda-vibe-viva-feature
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

From the Web

More on Vibe

Ebro Darden caught the Internet's wrath after calling out Kodak Black for sexual assault during an interview.
Getty Images

We're Looking At Y'all: Hip-Hop Won't Have A 'Me Too' Moment Because Of Apologists

Ebro Darden — the host of Hot 97 FM’s radio show Ebro In The Morning — caught the ire of the Internet Wednesday evening (Dec. 12) after a clip from an interview with 21-year-old rapper Kodak Black made the rounds. The longtime radio personality merely admonished and acknowledged the rapper’s recent sexual assault cases, including one that he is currently awaiting trial for. While Ebro noted he wouldn’t be able to go into details since the case is ongoing, he did take a moment to acknowledge that sexual assault is serious, and the discussion will not be ignored in the future.

“Respect to everybody involved in that case, we can’t get into details today… We take sexual assault here serious,” “El Viejo Ebro” exclaimed. “We can’t get into details, but we hope to have you back so that we can have a deeper conversation about that. It’s a serious topic, we’re hearing these stories a lot.” No more than two minutes later, the interview was over, as a visibly uncomfortable Kodak, legal name Bill K. Kapri, stated that the media is “entertained” by “bullsh*t” before leaving.

For some asinine reason, Ebro — a man whose job it is to interview musicians about life and their craft — was the one getting the heat for bringing up the allegations. The uproar was not given to the alleged sexual offender, but to the host acknowledging the wrongdoing by the alleged sexual offender.

Label booked him. I didn’t force anything. I was attenpting to make sure a huge issue was not ignored. https://t.co/vnl0JqeLfi

— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) December 13, 2018

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed posed the question: “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?” Due to the fans, some media personalities and the higher powers continuing to insulate these artists and avoiding discussion of the elephants in the room, it won’t — at least for the time being.

Fans of the Florida MC ignorantly tweeted that Ebro is likely working “with the Feds” for bringing up the sexual assault allegation proves that time will not be up anytime soon for men who allegedly abuse women in the game.

Due to many fans’ beliefs that hosts and journalists should “stick to asking artists about music” — and not the controversial lives often documented and discussed more than the careers that provide them bread and butter on the table — time will not be up. A similar “demand” came up earlier this year, when Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” instead of using his platform to discuss politics.

Then, there are media personalities like Peter Rosenberg, who during the Kodak interview aimed to deflect from the situation at hand by asking about the moon landing of 1969, in order to make Kodak feel a bit more comfortable (although his status in the hip-hop game despite his documented wrongdoing certainly makes some uncomfortable as well).

We also can’t ignore the woman on the panel, Laura Stylez, who chose to stay silent instead of using her platform and her voice to stand up for the women allegedly affected by Kodak’s behavior, or women in general. As a woman, her silence rubbed me the wrong way entirely.

These two, however, are not the only problematic personalities. DJ Akademiks, YouTuber turned host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, often discusses his relationship with embattled musician Tekashi 6ix9ine.

“I’m a little sad… but these are the decisions that got here,” Ak, real name Livingston Allen, said in a recent episode of the YouTube series regarding Tekashi’s recent high-profile racketeering arrest and possibility of life in jail. However, he continued to acknowledge that the young man is his n***a, and has not appeared to call out Tekashi for the allegations against him in terms of sexual misconduct.

It doesn’t appear he’s discussed his homie’s sexual misconduct charges head-on since 2014. Even in this particular interview, it appears that the 27-year-old was being more of an apologist for his friend, stating that “[he] could tell [Tekashi] was young, and obviously not thinking straight.”

Is this insulation of musicians who lead perilous lives a way to hold on to the clout these personalities have obtained? Or, is it realizing that if they stop defending these artists as a way to defend those who are hurt, they’ll lose a legion of equally as troublesome fans and followers in the process? Why not attempt to discuss the difficult topic at hand with as much discretion as possible, instead of getting a biased view of the story for clicks?

I know that as a woman in hip-hop, hip-hop doesn’t always love me back, but if this isn’t a slap in the face? To have this conversation occur in the same week that Cyntoia Brown was told she had to serve 51 years in prison for defending herself against a potential rapist, it’s infuriating to have to write about the blatant disregard and disrespect for the well-being of women in society in a field that I hold dear to my heart.

Due to the “separating artists from art” thought-process, especially in such a male-dominated industry and genre, it’s unsurprising that this is the response Ebro received for calling out wrongdoing.

This is the same thought process that allows R. Kelly to continue to tour despite well-documented instances of sexual misconduct for 25 years.

This is the same thought-process that causes music fans to lash out at Vic Mensa for “vehemently rejecting the trend in hip-hop of championing abusers”; although many would argue that he wasn’t the proper messenger to convey such a statement, the intentionality in the statement was appreciated by many.

On a grander scale, this is the same apologist thought-process that placed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump in the White House… and look at how well that’s going.

If we continue this trend of protecting the men in the game and not putting the well-being of the minority consumers of the genre into consideration (such as women and members of the LGBTQ community), hip-hop could be headed to a very murky place. While I don’t always agree with Ebro Darden, I applaud his effort in attempting to start a conversation that can’t continue to be ignored any longer, especially as a man with a platform in the hip-hop media space.

As hip-hop fans, we should aim to hold these artists accountable for their lyrics, comments and behavior. We can’t argue that they’re not hurting anyone through these things just because you don’t feel threatened, because best believe, someone does.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Ebro, Vic and other men attempting to hold these artists accountable is a small step on a long journey. While it’s clear that consumers are more interested in the music these people put out than the lives they lead, it would behoove all of us to take a long look at the state of the game beyond the bars and beats.

READ MORE: Ebro Calls Out Kodak Black For Sexual Assault During Interview

Continue Reading
Spex Photography

On 'Captured,' Spice Proves Women Can Rule Dancehall One Hit At A Time

Since her childhood, Spice knew the career path she wanted to attain would come with its fair share of roadblocks. After putting in work and releasing a stream of singles in the early 2000s, Spice would receive minor recognition here and there. Despite this slow-burn to stardom, the determined artist kept her foot on the gas until VP Records presented her with a contract in 2009. While maintaining the love she has for the dancehall genre, the “Complain (Mi Gone)” singer knew that she had to adopt an independent artist’s tenacity and hunger for success. Her knack for charting melodies began to become the norm, but with little support from the label (according to Spice), the fortified singer had to find her own way to become a household name.

Spice’s first appearance on the charts arrived nearly 10 years ago. The Jamaica-born singer and glorified dancehall artist Vybz Kartel collaborated on “Romping Shop,” the pair’s erotic take on Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent.” The melody peaked on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart at No. 76 in 2009, solidifying an already influential being in Kartel and a destined-for-stardom demeanor in Spice. In 2014, her So Mi Like It EP landed at No. 14 on Billboard’s U.S. Top Reggae Albums chart. Today, the “Fiesta” artist is celebrating her place on the boards again with her mixtape Captured, but this time the self-proclaimed dancehall queen reigns at the top spot.

Released in November 2018, Captured (Spice Official Entertainment) broke through the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart at No. 1 (Nov. 17). The 19-track project displays Spice at her finest: the melodies that her fans long for like “Mine Mine Mine” to “Body Right” are abundantly sprinkled throughout the mixtape. While those whine-tastic songs will get any waistline rocking, tracks like “Black Hypocrisy” and “Captured” put into perspective the harsh realities the singer, born Grace Latoya Hamilton, faces in her career.

The title track, which strikes an emotional chord within Spice when she performs it, is dedicated to her label VP Records and emotes a feeling of being trapped in a deal that has yet to fulfill its promise in her eyes. “They signed an album deal with me from 2009 for a five-album deal and they’ve never released an album with me,” Spice says. “Even when I visited them with lawyers, they still don’t want to release me out of the contract.” The revelation was made public earlier this year when Spice sent a stern message to the label. The statement prompted a response from VP Records, which reassured fans that it’s working on “finalizing the album and all the necessary clearances.”

While Spice tackled that aspect of her career, she also took a stand in the face of another battle plaguing many people of color across the globe. On “Black Hypocrisy,” Spice poses a question of whether she'll find success with lighter skin. To ensure the message was not only heard but seen, Spice erased all photos from her Instagram account and shared a new look that had spectators confused or infuriated. With a blonde wig and fair skin, the artist sparked a conversation on colorism and the psychological effects it has on people who go through the process of lightening their skin to appear acceptable in society’s view.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

@nosworthycreations @makeupurmind876 @spexphotography Every thing happened so quickly but I promised them that when the truth was revealed about my “Makeup complexion” 🤪 that I would show my public gratitude to these two ladies who made it possible @nosworthycreations did the viral picture that you know with “coconut milk” and @makeupurmind876 did the other picture and also the official video for the #blackhypocrisy Thanks for bringing my idea to life, sorry for the multiple bottles of makeup that was wasted and thank you for patiently applying it to my skin for 4 hours each time. 🤣 photo shoot by @spexphotography @nosworthycreations @makeupurmind876

A post shared by Grace Hamilton (@spiceofficial) on Nov 14, 2018 at 3:00pm PST

To amplify her message, Spice endured a four-hour transformation that was made possible by “about 10 bottles of makeup.” The video for the song has amassed over 3.4 million views on YouTube and went straight to No. 1 on the iTunes Reggae Singles chart.

Although Spice pulled from previous experiences of people making her feel as if her skin is a detriment, it was the comment of an unnamed dark-skinned woman that inspired Spice to go full throttle with the song’s creation. According to Spice, the lyric “Dem seh mi black til mi shine, til mi look dirty” was said to her by that aforementioned woman, a statement Spice says rocked her core but encouraged her to keep fighting against the sentiment. The woman later apologized after hearing her words on the song, which Spice posted on Instagram.

“As many people who know Spice as dancehall queen I never normally attack social commentary or certain types of issues,” she says. “I’m normally a raunchy singer. So for me to come out with a picture and the reggae type of songs that I did was a shocker to the world. I also believe that’s what caused the great uproar because they were so shocked regarding the picture that I posted and also the message in the song because they did not expect that from Spice.”

Pulling a fast one on her worldwide fans is something Spice says she was not hesitant to go forth with even though her team members were reluctant to her idea out of fear of “negative feedback.” Despite the apprehension, Spice took on the role “fearlessly.”

“As a black woman myself, I know what I’ve been going through over the years and growing up as a child. Even in my adulthood, it still affected me. I wanted to use my platform to bring awareness to colorism because it is something that has been swept under the rug for years.” As a fortified entertainer, though, Spice hopes other black women across the world and out of the spotlight, “take the baton and run with me” to defeat colorism.

Spice says her “Black Hypocrisy” single “sets the bar so high” for her mixtape because of its early success, and given that achievement, her mission to educate listeners from her Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta fame on the “realness” of dancehall culture was a sure bet. Although melodies like "Gum" and "Big Horse" serve as a great introduction to the majority of Spice's past lyrical content, "Yass Goodie" and "Romantic Mood" present the foundation for which Spice stands tall on.

On the latter, Spice pays homage to her foremothers in the 1980s-90s era of dancehall and reggae. Patra, Lady Ann, Sister Charmaine, Dawn Penn, and Sister Nancy are a few of the names the entertainer lists when asked about the song's inspiration. To invoke their spirits on wax, Spice reached out to famed producer Clevie (part of the legendary production duo Steely and Clevie) to create this timeless sound.

"I told him I wanted the same exact track that those ladies used to record from, from back in the ‘80s of dancehall music, which was also one of the most popular riddims from out of dancehall, which is called the Giggi Riddim," Spice says. While Clevie met Spice's request with confusion because he had "a new riddim that was more 2018," Spice was adamant on re-imagining that popular base for her day one and new supporters. Some of the samples that are found within include Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)," "Romantic Call" with Patra and Yo-Yo, and the everlasting "Bam Bam" by Sister Nancy. For Spice, these women "paved the way so that I could have a role as queen of the dancehall right now.”

Even within this title, Spice hopes her leadership can help usher in the next class of women dancehall artists. In a "male-dominated business," she understands the hardships that women in the genre face, mainly because of dancehall's entrenched nature. "For women to tackle it and be on top of it or to be respected in the genre, she has to be aggressive, very hardcore delivery wise, she has to be on point," Spice says. "It's not a genre where any and anybody can come up and sing two ABC songs and people say, 'Yes, that's an artist,' or 'Yes, that's a dancehall artist.' It's very difficult, aggressive, hardcore genre and that's why most of the women have it so hard and difficult because people don't take them seriously."

In 1994, Billboard introduced its Reggae Albums chart. Only nine solo women within the genre have attained a No. 1 title, as reported by The Tropixs. On Aug. 6, 1994, Patra entered the listing with Queen Of The Pack. It spent 17 weeks at the top spot. The chart was later dominated by Bounty Killer, Shaggy, and Bob Marley & The Wailers until 1997 when Diana King's Think Like a Girl disrupted the boys' club. If a solo woman artist within the genre appeared on the chart from that point onward, they were found within compilation albums like Reggae Gold, Dancehall Xplosion, or Pure Reggae.

In 2014, Etana's I Rise peaked at the top for a week. Joss Stone also spent a month atop the roster with her first full-length reggae album Water For Your Soul in August 2015, before returning to No. 1 for a week in two separate months: once in September and the next in November. HIRIE's Wandering Soul took home the gold in 2016, while last year saw Queen Ifrica's Climb, and Tenelle's For The Lovers at No. 1 on separate occasions. Just this year, Hollie Cook's Vessel Of Love went No. 1 for two weeks in February, while Santigold's I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions landed up top in August 2018.

While the latter half of the 2010s saw a minor bout of consistency with women on the reggae charts, Spice is hopeful that the future of the genre, including dancehall, will be increasingly inclusive of its women creatives. "There's a lot of different women in dancehall right now, and I believe that each of them are representing themselves in a different way," Spice says. By clinging to her mission, Spice also believes if she remains authentic to the true essence of dancehall, then more doors will continue to be opened. "That's why I try to represent the genre itself in such a way where I stick to the roots and stick to the hardcore dancehall so that people can know that's really the genre and love it for itself."

To stay on the track of making history and showing the next generation that goals can be fulfilled if authenticity is your middle name, it's important (and a no-brainer) for Spice to celebrate her wins. Ahead of the mixtape's release, "Black Hypocrisy" went No. 1 on iTunes' Top Reggae Singles while Captured netted the top spot on the U.K. iTunes Reggae Albums chart. The listing is consistently dominated with classic melodies by Bob Marley & The Wailers so "for me that's a great accomplishment because Bob Marley is the greatest reggae icon to ever have walked the face of the Earth and for me, little Spice, to have taken him from the number one position is something that needs to be applauded," she says.

Black hypocrisy it number 1 on iTunes in the reggae category, thank you smurfets 💙 Link in my bio pic.twitter.com/jhZlD6MVnX

— Grace Hamilton (@spiceofficial) October 23, 2018

Another artist familiar with breaking a record once held by Marley is Buju Banton, who garnered the title for the most No. 1 singles in Jamaica in 1992. Banton’s 'Til Shiloh album (1995) recently rose to No. 1 on the iTunes Top Reggae Albums chart, a position previously held by Bob Marley & The Wailers' Legend (Remastered). Banton was released from a U.S. prison on Dec. 7 after serving seven of his 10-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm, and intent to sell cocaine. Immediately after his discharge, Banton boarded a plane to return to his family in Jamaica.

"Buju Banton is one of our reggae icons so his returning to Jamaica is going to be a well-celebrated moment," Spice says. "Despite the negative backlash that they have of him out there in the world, we are still going to love him as our own." Banton’s release also accompanies another momentous moment for Jamaica.

In late November, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added reggae to its list of global heritage treasures, a feat Spice believes will pave the way for the genre’s inhabitants to make history. “We as artists from Jamaica have been fighting for certain recognition with our genre,” she says. “Even dancehall itself, we also believe that hip-hop takes a bit from dancehall sometimes and we don’t get the credit for certain things. But it may take years but myself as an artist is here to do it a step at a time until it reaches where it should. This is an accomplishment for the genre.”

While hip-hop artists have found major success by recording the sounds of dancehall or reggae (Snoop Dogg-turned-Snoop Lion, The Fugees’ influential blend, even Drake circa Views From The 6), Spice utilized that tactic to inspire a domino effect of getting fans to spin more of her records. During her time on her first season of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, Spice welcomed a new wave of American advocates. To permanently reel them in, the 36-year-old performer made it her mission to record a melody on the mixtape titled “Move Fast” that can find a home on a twerk playlist but still amplify her dialect.

“We took the fact that they love hip-hop, and we used a hip-hop beat and gave them a sound that they’re used to but I would also catch back a little of my native language which is patois and introduce it to them a bit,” she says. “I’m trying to fuse the two so that they would understand more about my genre and maybe if they listen to ‘Move Fast’ they will hear my accent and go, ‘Oh, she’s from Jamaica, she’s in dancehall, let me listen to another track.’ Then they will listen to another track from the mixtape, which is authentic dancehall. Then they may fall in love with the genre.”

In the process of finding adoration for Spice’s beloved dancehall, she hopes that fans will also applaud her for the recent encounter of success, and the fact that she’s operating as an independent artist despite the fact that she’s signed to a major label. “I think for me I’m just humbled over the fact, especially that I did this on my own without my record company,” she says. “I’m really happy and excited and proud of myself for even believing in myself and pushing myself to reach to this limits without no management team or record company. I’m really humbled by my journey.”

Continue Reading
Getty Images

Saba's Rhymes Mean A Lot But John Walt Day Means More

“Act like ya’ll know, man. This a holiday,” boasted Frsh Waters, the co-founder of Chicago collective Pivot Gang and the opener of the second annual John Walt Day concert. It's Thanksgiving weekend and while families are gathered around the dinner table, lovers and supporters of Pivot Gang–comprised of Saba, MFn Melo, Waters, SqueakPIVO and a few more–filled the spaces of the city's Concord Music Hall to keep up a holiday tradition of their own.

With a newly-grown fro, Waters enters the stage with no introduction, a contrast from initial mic stand-clasping nervousness during the inaugural John Walt Day, launched at House of Blues Chicago in 2017. Walt Jr., the cousin of Saba, was killed last year and is the sole inspiration for the rapper's John Walt Foundation that brings the arts to children in the city.

The concert is a resounding tradition that his Pivot Gang brothers don’t plan to break anytime soon, with anticipation flooding the city each Thanksgiving weekend and a simultaneous celebration of Walt’s birthday on November 25th. The concert is just a piece of the loving puzzle Saba, Waters and the rest of the group created to keep his legacy alive.

With repeated crouching and soulful backing by Chicago band, The Oh’My’s, Waters regained balance after kneeling on an uneven speaker, referring to the crowd as "Church,” a christening that he echoes on the ending of "GPS" a feature from Saba’s well-received debut album Bucket List Project.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Happy 26th @dinnerwithjohn Long Live my niqqa Johnny 📷 @bda.photo

A post shared by Westside Cat (@frshwaters) on Nov 25, 2018 at 11:37am PST

Saba may have dropped the stellar sophomore project, Care For Me this year, but the continuation of John Walt Day means more. Sold out for its second year in a row with 1,400 in attendance, Pivot Gang house-DJ Squeak Pivot blares "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest as the crowd multiplies before his booth. Avid fans gather in all creases of Concord Music Hall, especially on the second floor, where a merch stand resides exclusively for John Walt items. A haloed painting of Walt (or DinnerWithJohn as listeners knew him best), sits next to an assortment of buttons and t-shirts, as a guest brings a newly finished painting of Walt to the show.

Between sets, the crowd roared for cuts by Chicagoans Ravyn Lenae and Noname, who’s Room 25 track "Ace" is cut abruptly before MfnMelo takes the stage. With orchestration by Care For Me co-producer Dae Dae and harpist Yomi, Melo flowed through "Can’t Even Do It" and briefly spoke to the crowd about Thanksgiving, inviting attendees with leftover pies to meet him after the show.

Strutting to Ariana Grande's kiss-off anthem "thank u, next," The Plastics EP rapper Joseph Chilliams poses freely, cloaked in a light pink teddy bear coat. “I made this song because there aren’t a lot of black people [in Mean Girls]. I realized that the fourth time,” Chilliams joked before performing "Unfriendly Black Hotties."

Joined by four-year-old Snacks Pivot, John Walt’s mother Nachelle Pugh pinpoints her nephew’s curiosity of joining his older cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams as their miniature hype-man.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

John Walt Day It didn’t even feel real, so much love in the room. For the encore they usually yell the artist name or one more song or something like that. But on this night they yelled “LONG LIVE JOHN WALT”. I wish this could be everyday. I wish I could play you this new shit we just did. I wish you were here. Love you @dinnerwithjohn look at this coat” lmao 💗💗💗💗 📸 by my shooter @notryan_gosling

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Nov 26, 2018 at 3:29pm PST

“It’s like Walter jumped into his body and he’s coming back through this kid," she said of the toddler's enthusiasm. "He’s studied Saba, he’s studied Joseph, and he’ll say 'Auntie, can I use your phone?' So he’d use my phone and watch the boys’ videos on YouTube. Joseph is a person that the kids look at and say ‘He’s so fun,’ and [Snacks] wants to be like him. Everything that they do, [Snacks] is studying them.”

Pugh credits Young Chicago Authors for sparking her son’s musical pursuits, with guidance by poet Kevin Coval. “Kevin mentored him until the day he passed. I really love and respect someone that can just work with kids and give them a place to express themselves creatively,” Pugh said. “Working towards a goal of creating something that I know [Walt] wanted to do, and to help others in the same token, that gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

The stage then transformed into a resting kitchen with illuminating lights on the bottom of side-by-side counters, with Care for Me co-producers Dae Dae and Daoud behind their respective keyboards. Once settled, Saba rushed the stage to perform "Busy," with a special appearance by singer theMIND. The pulse of the venue throbbed as Saba took brief pauses to talk intimately to the crowd. “I lost a lot of people close to me,” he said. “A song like "Stoney" is such a celebration of life. It’s crazy to think how long ago that sh*t was. John was still alive.”

As Saba diverted into memories of Walt’s life, Nachelle recalled the album listening event for Care For Me. “Saba wouldn’t let me listen to it. He didn’t even tell me that he was working on it until it got really close [to the album’s release]," she said. "Then, he warned me about "Prom/King." I think he was thinking about letting me listen to it by myself at first, but then he thought about it like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do that while she’s by herself, let me just let her listen to it while she’s with everybody else.’ That was an easier way to break it to me, so I wouldn’t really break down.”

Saba capered into "Prom/King," but performing the heart-tugging ode to Walt was a first, even after embarking on his 2018 Care For Me tour.

“I didn’t know he was gonna do that. I didn’t think that he’d ever be able to do that. I don’t think he thought he’d be able to do that,” Pugh explained. “I don’t know if anybody captured the expressions, but I think he was in tears and he was just fighting through it. We went through this fight together on the day we found out what happened with Walt. When he got finished, he sat down, turned around and he looked at me and I’m like 'We did it.'”

Even with "Prom/King" being the most grief-stricken track on Care For Me, Nachelle revealed that the most poignant song about her son was "Heaven All Around Me," realizing the message just months after the album’s release. “I was like, 'Walter wrote that song through Saba,' she said. "That’s the song that gets me the most off Care For Me. I don’t think [Saba] intentionally did so, but it just put so much power behind "Prom/King" because you see what happened. He told a story.”

The storytelling of Walt’s legacy was fulfilled throughout John Walt Day, from Joseph Chilliams doing a comedic, warbled rendition of "Ordinary People," Walt’s favorite song to play on the aux cord, to the entire Pivot Gang reuniting to perform their ensemble track "Blood" for the first time. Walt’s presence was unwavering, with remaining Pivot Gang members continuing to carry his eternal flame.

“This year’s show, the passion was a little bit stronger, because at the time we did last year’s show, I think we were all still in denial, like 'We’re gonna wake up from this dream’ type of thing.' Pugh said. “I think we accepted the fact that [Walt’s] not coming back. They wanted to go as hard as possible because they were doing this for him.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

JOHN WALT DAY was so beautiful. We gotta find a bigger venue for next year. I made so many new friends. Pivot tape up next 💪🏽🔥

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Dec 1, 2018 at 5:15pm PST

Continue Reading

Top Stories