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Interview: Dr. Cornel West & Afro-Cuban Jazz Musician Arturo O'Farrill Explore Music & Activism

On hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco and more. 

Since the days of the Civil Rights movement, jazz music and activism share a bond that seeps through the spirit of those who march for social change. From John Coltrane's support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Kendrick Lamar's call to action against police brutality, the bond has become stronger and overall a globally shared fellowship.

That bond has also inspired Grammy award-winning Latino composer Arturo O'Farrill to merge the words of social change by activist and philosopher Dr. Cornel West with The Cornel West Concerto, a piece to be performed by O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the legendary Apollo Theater on May 21.

The one-night-only event isn't about matching music to Dr. West's latest speeches in Chicago, New York and Baltimore, but unveiling the soulful connection of social change in the streets of Cuba to the neighborhoods in Ferguson, MO. O'Farill's latest work Cuba: The Conversation Continues helped bridge the theme between the cultural and political divide in his homeland. His father the late Chico O'Farrill, an Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer, is originally from Havana, Cuba and helped provide the inspiration between the mix of Cuban and American music.

It was no surprise that O'Farrill's love for political change jumped started the idea to include Dr. West in his work. Since their collaboration, the two have sprouted a romance that presents jazz as secular music and more. On Monday, the legends shared their love for Afro-Cuban music, hip-hop and activism at New York's Greene Space with VIBE VIVA. 

VIBE VIVA: What inspired the idea to mix your work with your O'Farill's compositions?
Dr. Cornel West: "This talented artist right here suggested we do something together. He said he's got a Cornel West concerto and I said, 'You got to be kidding me.' I said, 'Brother, I will follow your instructions.' I'm just blessed to be here with him."

Arturo O'Farrill: "I had the opportunity to host a dialogue with Bob Avakian and Dr. West at Riverside Church and it was the first time I heard him speak live. I've seen him [on video] many times, but when I saw him speak live, it was electric. I tried to get a hold of him and he's a busy man, but I went to see him again at a rally against police brutality and he wasn't well, but he threw down! At the end of his speech, literally people's hair were flying back. It was probably one of the most electrifying things I've ever seen in my life. Then the master of ceremonies came up and said, 'And now we'll have a word from Arturo O'Farrlll.' [Laughs] He came up to me afterward and said, 'Brother, that was strong.' and I pitched the idea."

Dr. Cornel West: "This talented artist right here suggested we do something together. He said he's got a 'Cornel West Concerto' and I said, "You got to be kidding me.' I said, 'Brother, I will follow your instructions' and I'm just blessed and honored."

How do you think music and activism are connected?
DW: "My dear brother Arturo comes from a great tradition in which music comes from truth. And the condition of truth is allowing the suffering to speak. Whatever form it takes. It can be physic, it can be spiritual, it could be social, it could be political. But it engages the world in order to create a better world and that's the great artistic tradition that flows from Africa to Cuba, to Latin America to New Orleans or all the way to Detroit, the Southside of Chicago. So forth and so forth. We're losing that kind of courageous vision and that's what I love so much about this brother here. He stands in that tradition with his mastery of technique to engage the truth and of course these days, it's all about money, the trump truth you see."

AO: "I've always thought of music as profound spirituality because you can use that music and that spirituality for personal gain or for the good of the world, the good of humanity and for the good of your people. I think when a musician loses their inhibition and dives deep into their soul, that's a prayer. It's so powerful that you will touch people whether it's good or bad. By traditional music standards, look at Thelonius Monk. He wouldn't be allowed in the Monk institute. But every note he played was spiritual, African and deep. What I love about Monk is when you play him for little kids, their eyes light up... they aren't jazz fans. But that's the power of spirituality and to me, Jazz of all music is the music that should be closely associated with activism and social cause. It comes from that powerful place inside a musician's soul. Any person, any musician and any artist who doesn't see what is going on today and doesn't say anything, is doing a half-ass job."

How would you both define secular music?
DW: "The secular and spiritual, the sacred and profane are always intertwined. I don't think there's such a thing as purely, exclusively secular music because any music that's trying to get at our humanity, our suffering, our joy, and our pleasure is going to find the reality in which their dealing with has secular and sacred all tied together. It's just who we are as human beings."

AO: "The classic Ray Charles would be [considered] secular. He was born out of gospel tradition and the music he sang was still rooted musically in gospel. So people responded with complete abandon becasue they knew they were hearing something that was unlike anything they've ever heard before. People who worked with Ray Charles say he never lowered that standard. Everytime he played it was a spirtual expereience. There was an old saying that went 'If you really wanted to check out Ray Charles, you had to watch his feet.'The tempos were right in there and boy did he get angry if you deviated from his tempo.He'd let you know."

DW: "Yes, he had the highest level of excellence."

That's amazing. You're going to be performing two other solos on Saturday, one being "Trump, Untrump." We know where the inspiration comes from with the piece.
AO: "That's the polite title." [Laughs]

What really made you want to create that?
AO: "There's a principle in science and philosophy and in art and relations that things clump together and eventually they drift apart. Life is a series of cycles and what you hope happens at the end of cycle is what you hope is permanent in that union. What I hoping happens is we know he'll go away. We'll know he'll disappear. We know that this awful moment in American History will cease to be one day, as filled with hatred as it is, it will cease. I'm hoping what we are left with is the memory of the stupidity and ugliness we've allowed to creep into our lives and into our nation. I hope that when he goes away, the lessons he's left us with ring loud and true. That we cannot tolerate this kind of admiration ever. It's hard for me to believe we've allowed to happen now."

I think most of us are surprised. We didn't think this would be a conversation. On the upside, there will be a president at the end of this and I know you Dr. West are big supporter of Bernie Sanders. From what the world is telling us, he may not get the Democratic nomination so what happens then?
DW: "Well, we shall see. We're fighting for the cause. In the end, it isn't about the candidate, it's about the cause. Bernie Sanders has come along at a particular moment and voices the certain kind of analysis and vision that puts poor people and working people at the center of things. From the wretched of the earth, those catching hell, and any other voice that accent the same kind of feeling or concern warrants that support. So we'll just have to see."

Check out their additional discussion with WQXR's Helga Davis, where they share their admiration for Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco, as well their creative process.

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Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Sentenced To Life In Supermax Prison Plus 30 Years

After a three-month trial period, a Brooklyn judge sentenced Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to life in prison plus 30 years on Wednesday (July 17), CNN reports. The Mexico native faced 10 charges stemming from narcotic dealings that stretched into the United States, to other criminal activities including money laundering and murder conspiracy. He was once deemed the captain of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel.

Guzman will reportedly carry out his sentence at Colorado’s Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, a place that the news site deemed “the highest-security federal prison” in the United States. According to The Washington Post, Guzman believes justice wasn’t served in his trial. “When extradited, I expected to have a fair trial where justice was blind and my fame would not be a factor, but what happened was actually the opposite,” he said. “The government of the United States will send me to a prison where my name will never be heard again. I will take this opportunity to say there was no justice here.”

According to CBS News, Richard Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for New York’s Eastern District, said in February that the possibility of parole was unlikely for Guzman. “His conviction is a victory for the American people who have suffered so long and so much while Guzman made billions pouring poison over our southern border," he said. Guzman's attorney Mariel Colon said the legal team is weighing an appeal.

The government is also demanding that Guzman turn over $112.6 billion while a restitution fee will be solidified at a different point in time. The verdict arrives nearly two-and-a-half years since he was extradited to the U.S. from Mexico. While detained in the latter country, Guzman escaped from prison on two separate occasions before landing in captivity in the states.

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Gina Torres attends The Hollywood Reporter's Empowerment in Entertainment event 2019 at Milk Studios on April 30, 2019 in Hollywood, California.
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For Gina Torres, The Mission Is Afro-Latina Excellence In Her New Series 'Pearson'

That’s what the formidable Jessica Pearson, a disbarred New York lawyer who enters Chicago’s dirty politics as a fixer, warns her new boss, the mayor, in the trailer for the forthcoming Suits spin-off series, Pearson.

For fans of the eight-season USA Network legal drama, Jessica’s tough-talk and self-assurance is par for the course. Exuding power from the top of quick-witted head to the tips of her pointy stilettos, Jessica isn’t intimidated by status. An opportunity to tell the man how it only bolsters her own vigor. She’s commanding, incredibly skilled and feared–and she knows it. She’s the kind of powerhouse woman Gina Torres, the Cuban-American actress reprising the role, has taken on throughout her lengthy career.

“I’m very fortunate to play strong, significant women,” Torres, 50, tells Vibe Viva. “It’s been an incredible blessing and one I didn’t see coming early on.”

The Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised Torres got her start on the soap opera One Life To Live but has made a name for herself bringing sci-fi badasses to life. Famously playing Zoë Washburne, an ass-kicking fan favorite in Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly, the Afro-Latina actress was also Nebula, a Sumerian princess and pirate in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; Jasmine, a demon who takes human form and devours people into her super slaves in Angel and woman warrior Hel in the two-season Cleopatra 2525–a role that won her an Alma Award.

The sci-fi goddess, who also had roles in Hannibal, Xena: Warrior Princess, Alias and Westworld, says she, like many aspiring actresses, initially pined for the coveted girlfriend part in films and shows about the mundane life of some American man. But she was rarely cast as anyone’s sweetheart. Instead, she says, each snub guided her down a more fulfilling theatrical path.

“I got to play far more interesting roles,” she says.

For Torres, Jessica’s comeback in Pearson is an evolution of all the fierce women she has played in the past. Unlike in Suits, where the character, a former managing partner at New York law firm Pearson Specter Litt, is somewhat of an enigma, its spin-off, which sees Jessica as its lead, introduces viewers to the complexity of an influential woman of color who understands her might and value.

She is, to quote Torres, a “fully realized human,” who we see restarting her life in the Windy City, navigating the cutthroat, grimy political world as the mayor’s right-hand, grappling with relationship woes that stem from her controversial career transition and reconciling her incessant impulse to win by any means necessary with her drive to do the right thing.

“As I have evolved over the years, as a woman and as an actress, Jessica is a beautiful realization of so many roads taken and not taken. It’s why I think this character will resonate with a lot of professional women,” Torres says. “It shows the sacrifices it takes, the things you have to go through and let go along the way, the rewards and benefits you gain as well as the peace you have to make with it all.”

The idea for the gripping new series, where Torres will make her co-executive production debut alongside Suits veterans Aaron Korsh and Daniel Arkin, came to the actress while she was home watching the 2016 election explode on her TV.

Looking at the key players, their nasty tactics and the cult-like supporters they cultivated from her small screen got her thinking about her former Suits character Jessica and how she might move in this messy political landscape.

“I was perplexed by the different characters who inhabited this world, and I have to say on both sides of the aisle. I was looking at blind loyalty, true believers, people who just want to power grab. I was fascinated by all of that,” Torres said. “Jessica, as a character, I think was particularly interesting to people because she was a loyal, intelligent character who did whatever she had to do to keep her people safe and the firm together. So I started to think of her in this political arena, because she does have a specific skill set that can be seen in a different way, but she ultimately wants to use her power for good.”

She brought the idea to her agent, who told her she “had a show,” and Suits creators agreed. The then-unnamed spin-off was picked up by the USA Network in March 2018. The series casts Morgan Spector (Homeland) as Chicago Mayor Bobby Novak, Bethany Joy Lenz (One Tree Hill) as an ambitious city attorney, Eli Goree (Riverdale) as a journalist-turned-press secretary, Chantel Riley (Wynonna Earp) as Angela Cook, Jessica's cousin, and Simon Kassianides (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the mayor's tough-guy driver.

As a co-executive producer with influence behind the scenes, Torres has taken the responsibility to drive diversity in the writer’s room. To start, she pitched the character and arc for Yoli Castillo, a DREAMer who is just starting her career in Chicago politics as Jessica’s assistant, who will be played by Puerto Rican actress Isabel Arraiza (Driven).

“Because it was my idea and I brought it to them, the powers that be have been incredibly open to my story ideas and respectful to my original vision of the show, which was to create and mirror Chicago as it is: a diverse world, socioeconomically, culturally and racially,” she said.

Being in the room where stories are created and decisions are made, an experience Torres calls “incredible,” also helped her make a lifelong career dream come true: playing an Afro-Latina character.

“I was very specific about reinventing Jessica’s mythology and making sure, for the first time in my life, I would actually be playing an Afro-Latina character,” she said, excitedly. “In the past, it was never an issue for me because I wasn’t in a position of power, but now, in this instance, I was, and I got to say, ‘this is who she is and we are going to reintroduce her to the world as a proud Afro-Latina character.’”

The Black Cubana, who has played multiple African-American characters during the span of her career, has long called out the mainstream media’s Eurocentric representation of Latinidad.

In 2012, she discussed how casting directors continuously passed on her for Latinx roles in NBCUniverso’s documentary Black and Latino, famously saying, “When I became an actress, I quickly realized that 'the world' liked their Latinas to look Italian and not like me.”

The following year, she told Latina magazine that despite the film industry needing to “figure it out and catch up,” her view of herself never changed, adding, “I know who I am. I’m Cuban American.”

For a Black Latina trying to make it in an industry that not only didn’t understand her but operated to erase her from the popular imagination of Latinidad, self-awareness was survival.

“They didn’t care about the Latina part of me at all because I didn’t look like the Spanish, Eurocentric standard of what Latina women were supposed to look like. But the way I counteracted that was by hiding in plain sight, never pretending to be anything but what I was,” she told Vibe Viva.

Years after Torres criticized the media’s whitewashing of Latinidad, we are seeing more Afro-Latinx characters on TV. On FX, the drama series Pose, which follows the lives of trans and queer African American and Latinx young people in New York's ballroom scene in the late '80s and early '90s, Afro-Puerto Rican actress Mj Rodriguez and the nonconforming Puerto Rican-Dominican-Haitian performer Indya Moore both play lead trans Afro-Latina characters. In the streaming space, even wider representation of Afro-Latinidad is prevalent, with Black Latina main cast members in Orange is the New Black, The Get Down and On My Block.

“We’ve always been around, Afro-Latinx people, gay people, indigenous people, we’ve always been here. Dealing with immigration, diversity, LGBTQ rights and inclusivity isn’t new,” Torres said. “The fact that there has been such a stranglehold on acceptance and inclusivity really boggles the mind. All of our contributions through time are significant, and so what this, [having women of color behind the scenes], brings is a point of view, a truth to what life is, a truth to how society functions.”

While there have been gains for Afro-Latinxs in film and TV in recent years, Torres’ anticipated role in Pearson marks another feat: it’s among the first hour-long, primetime network drama series to have an Afro-Latina lead, alongside FX’s Pose. While social media has been abuzz, praising the legend actress for the triumph, and Torres, too, understands its significance, she also recognizes that representation, alone, is never enough.

“My hope is that people watch the show and enjoy it because it is a great show and the performance is wonderful. I want people to get sucked into it because the success of the show means that I get to be on television for other girls, boys and women like us,” she said. “It’s not always about what you see, but about excellence and creating excellence. So often we are told our stories don’t matter or the talent pool isn’t wide enough, so we need excellence and success for this to last.”

If there’s one thing we can expect from both Torres and Jessica, it’s Afro-Latina excellence.

Pearson airs on the USA Network starting July 17, 2019.

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Cardi B departs from court after being arraigned on misdemeanor assault charges at the Queens Criminal Court on June 25, 2019 in New York City.
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Cardi B Rightfully Slams Lawyer For Obsessing Over Her Courtroom Attire

Cardi B responded to criticism from celebrity defense lawyer Joe Tacopina who is turned off by the entertainers designer duds. In an interview with the New York Post, he went on to say that the entertainer treats her courthouse visits "like a runway show."

Tacopina is representing sisters Sarah and Rachel Wattley, the alleged victims in the rapper's strip club assault case.

"Here's a woman who got indicted by a grand jury with charges, and appears to only be concerned about what she's wearing," the celebrity defense attorney said. pointing to moments where she wore a Barneys pink pantsuit and other luxury items.

"There's going to be a 'Come to Jesus' moment with her, because it's not consistent with someone who's taking this seriously."

Billboard reports that the 26-year-old rapper posted a series of since-deleted Instagram videos, which have resurfaced to YouTube, to chime in on Tacopina's comments on Sunday (July 14). "I don't dress inappropriately when I go to court. I dress like a young f**king lady," she said "Where am I supposed to get my suits from, H&M? Why are you worried about the way I dress?"

The "Rodeo" artist continued to explain that she appeared in court looking opposite of her put together runway-esque self, without wearing makeup or brushing hair. "That just goes to show you that y'all do this s**t for press. I went to court six times already for a f**king misdemeanor," she said.

She is currently facing two felony counts and a list of other lesser charges that were followed by an indictment in June.

View Cardi's full response above.

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