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Lisa Guarnieri / PR

Strike A Pose: Madonna's "Vogue" Dancers Recall Blond Ambition Tour & Gay Life In The '90s

Life after superstardom…

In 1990, Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition World Tour. She trekked from Japan to Europe to North America, challenging societal views on sexuality while entertaining the masses. She pushed the envelope with wildly provocative dance numbers and concert themes, yet never failed to promote safe sex. “You know you never really get to know a guy until you ask them to wear a rubber,” she unapologetically said to a crowd in Japan, before jumping into her set of “Get Into The Groove.”

Due to the tour’s highly sexualized and risqué acts, she faced various death threats, ban threats from the Vatican, and warnings of arrest. However controversial, there was no denying the pop star was on a journey to put a human face on the gay community and empower female sexuality.

After the tour in 1991, came Truth or Dare, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the show, which also chronicled the lives of seven of Madonna's back up dancers—Luis Camacho, Oliver Grumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn.

“You see the dancers that I work with and little bits and pieces of their life,"  said Madonna during an interview on Good Morning America circa 1991. "I deal with a lot of  issues… and what I think to be a big problem in the United States and that is homophobia. There is a real big section in the movie devoted to that. These things exist in life. I’m only presenting life to people. I’m not presenting anything that they are not exposed to in everyday life, but maybe they don’t want to deal with it. If you kept putting something in somebody’s face eventually maybe they can come to terms with it.”

Twenty-five years later, these dancers are telling their own narrative (with the exception of Trupin, who died in 1995 at 26, due to complications from AIDS) in Strike A Pose, a Tribeca Film Festival documentary created by Ester Goud and Reijer Zwaan. The film, which had its grand North American debut on April 15, explores the truth behind everything that happened on tour and in the aftermath of the release of Truth of Dare. Three of the dancers — Stea, Trupin and Grumes — sued Madonna for the film due to issues with contracting and for publicly showcasing their homosexual identities, a huge issue for Trupin at the time. Trupin’s mother echoes his feelings about Truth or Dare in the recently-premiered Strike A Pose. "[It's] not a statement that he wanted to make. It was Madonna’s statement,” she said of her son’s sexuality.

The documentary also sheds light on how the tour first got started, with Madonna recruiting a pair of Latino dancers from New York City: Luis Camacho of Puerto Rican descent and Jose Gutierez of Dominican descent. Together, they choreographed her famous “Vogue” video.

Both were kids from the underground voguing scene and part of the House of Extravaganza, a crew of the New York ballroom scene.  Camacho and Gutierez were dance majors at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School Of Music And Performing Arts, and with a little hard work and a serendipitous encounter, they got the job.

“It’s crazy when you have this person give you this opportunity and we really didn’t work for it,” Jose muses. “It wasn’t a job that we were training for, like most dancers do.” Prior to dancing with Madonna at just 18, Jose trained at Eliot Feld Ballet Tech School since the third grade and traveled to Brazil and Japan with the House of Extravaganza.

On a bright spring day, Luis and Jose are holding court in a pressroom on the second floor of The Smyth Hotel. They discuss their experiences with Madge, the tour, Strike The Pose and the impact Truth Or Dare had on the gay community. “The first film gave us an opportunity to be express ourselves,” says Luis.“This new movie gave us an opportunity to express ourselves in a different light."

VIBE VIVA: What was it like being a gay Latino in the early '90s?
Jose: At the time it was crazy because there was a lot of a crime in the streets. Being gay wasn’t accepted as it is today, and I was very rebellious at a young age. [Laughs] So growing up then, even though what was around me was very distracting I managed to try to stay focused on my dancing. I’m from the Lower East Side—my family came from nothing really, they migrated here from the Dominican Republic. [Dancing] was a way to get out of the ghetto.

The gay scene opened my eyes to so many artistic things, and that also helped me develop as an artist. I was more dedicated as a kid, growing up I loved to dance, but other than that it was very hard growing up in the ghetto, trying to stay focused when everything around is drug deals and stuff like that. I came out at a very young age to the club scene, and that was my escape where I got to dance, perform and travel.


So were you part of the famous ballroom scene voguing documentary Paris is Burning?
Jose: Yes, oh my god I was a baby! I was 16-years old. I remember sneaking off for a weekend to Washington, D.C. to go compete at a ball. I snuck away without telling my mom. And that was a scene from Paris is Burning. I remember thinking to myself ‘I want to win, so I’m trying to get everything in there.' I was voguing at the speed of light, 'cause I didn’t want to lose. [Laughs]

Take me back to that night when you and Luis auditioned for Madonna at the club?
Jose: It was in club Sound Factory. A mutual friend of ours, Madonna’s make-up artist Debi Bazar, was like ‘Madonna’s coming she’s looking for dancers soon, and I told her about you guys, you have to meet her.’  In situations like that, you’re always like 'yeah yeah, whatever.’ And so we submitted a video of us dancing with the whole House of Extravaganza.

One night we walk into the club, and we see Debi and she was like ‘Come here I want you to meet somebody.’ She introduced me right there to Madonna. I remember being in awe. She said, 'Hey, I heard a lot about you guys, you guys do this vogue thing and I want to see.’ I was still stuck 'cause I remember thinking ‘you want us to show you now in the club? And she was like ‘Yeah, right now.’

I was always fashionably inclined, I was done up in this crazy Gaultier outfit. And I was like ‘how do you want me to dance like this?’ Her bodyguard took off his pants and gave them to me in the VIP bathroom. I couldn’t believe I was wearing her bodyguards’ pants; he was this huge dude. But I managed and practically auditioned on the spot. And once the club got wind that she was there, the whole club turned into an audition. She said ‘Sit here with me,’ to me and Luis. ‘And let’s watch these guys, tell me what you think.’

We were there for at least two hours, then she invited us to the actual audition. We beat out 7,000 dancers. It was crazy, because she thought that I was just an underground dancer—a voguer from the gay community. She didn’t know that I was 10 years into training. So she was like ‘Oh I want you to come and do the “Vogue” video, but I don’t know if I’m going to take you on tour, because there are other forms of dance that you have to be able to do.’ Then when she saw me she said ‘I didn’t know you can do all of that.’ I was like ‘You didn’t ask me’. [Laughs]

"DATHROBACK"

A photo posted by INtheNAMEoftheFATHER(J🙏🏾SE) (@fatherjose.xtravaganza) on

Did you feel any pressure to do well in the video for “Vogue”?
Jose: Oh yeah! We wanted show good work coming from the community—especially on a main stage for the world to see. We wanted to deliver the goods.

What was that first night like on tour?
Jose: The minute she came up on a lift and they saw a little bit of a hair, everyone just went crazy. And your heart is beating out of your chest. I remember that was the first moment in time I was like, ‘Oh sh*t is real’ And when you hear them screaming your name, at 18-years old, you’re like ‘They are screaming for me?’ It was like you just want to jump out into the crowd—such a great feeling.

How did it feel like when Truth or Dare came out?
Jose: It was very overwhelming for me at the time. I didn’t set out to move people; you’re so young that you don’t realize that. You don’t think that people are like ‘Oh my god Truth or Dare saved my life.’ Today, I still get ‘Watching that movie, saved my life, seeing you being so open and comfortable made me want to come out to my family.’ That to me is amazing cause at that age, you don’t set out to do any of that. You’re not looking to be a role model, you’re just looking to live in that moment. That’s why I think I didn’t realize till much later what I had accomplished. I was just there to dance, and I loved what I was doing. I was just a young kid expressing my art. I’m so glad I was able to touch and move people. The fact that people still appreciate it 26 years later is amazing.

Why do you think the '90s needed this?
Jose: Because it was a time where we needed something new. The '90s just came in and being part of the community and part of the scene—with the rise of pop art, I think they needed somebody like Madonna to put the community on the map. [She] opened up people’s eyes to so many things that are going on in the world. It’s here: boys like each other, we’re gay, we’re human, we’re talented.

I think it played a major part in the early '90s because you never seen anything like it. That was before reality shows, now you see it like nothing. But back then to see two boys kissing was overwhelming, but it was happening. I can’t even imagine someone being not proud of who they are. We have to be proud of who we are, and everybody is somebody. We are all here for a reason. And ever since I was a kid I always remembered that: ‘You’re gay, but you are special.’

Truth or Dare showcased the love Madonna had for you guys. How would you define your relationship with her back then? 
Jose: I didn’t know how to take it. I was so young, and yeah I loved the love. She was almost like a mother to us.

Luis: This was our first big mainstream thing. We were quote in quote kings of the underground with House of Extravaganza. But this crossover was the first to us. She really took to us. By the time we got to Los Angeles and started working we were really tight. We felt very akin to her. She was really loving towards to us.

Oh yea!!!"almost forgot."HOPE ALL YALL HAD A WONDERFUL FOURTH O JULY WKND!!!!"

A photo posted by INtheNAMEoftheFATHER(J🙏🏾SE) (@fatherjose.xtravaganza) on


How was it like dealing with all the controversy the Blond Ambition tour spurred?
Jose: When they started calling hotels and leaving death threats [it] was scary. But at the same time that made us want to be even fiercer. I was ready to take off my clothes and everything. And after all of that, we were extra provocative.

Can you describe to me a different side of Madonna that you guys were privy to?
Jose: I saw such an emotional side. I thought I was going to lose my job because I got her so upset, to the point where she was crying. The tour was almost ending and we got into a conversation, and she was promising us to continue with a record deal, and performing at the MTV Awards. And I sad, ‘You’re a liar, we’re not going to see you again.’ I said ‘Oh please, you’re just gong to forget about us.’

It really hurt her feelings. And she just kicked me out of her dressing room. So that was a moment for me that I never saw—cause you think, ‘When this is over you’re going to move on.’ She just started crying and she said, ‘Just get out of my room.' She kicked me out.

Luis: She honestly was really loving and motherly to us. But besides that, she was an around-the-way girl when there weren’t any cameras around. She was really chill, relaxed and we hung out.

What was it like adjusting  after you guys got back home from tour?
Luis: The phone wasn’t there for room service!  [Laughs]

Jose: It was a rude awakening. You’re spoiled with this lifestyle. As a kid you can easily adapt to all of that. I hated home, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in my mom’s house. My mother looked at me like ‘Calm down before I smack you down.’ [Laughs]

Luis: Even though we didn’t come back to the situation we were accustomed to, we came back with so much knowledge.

Jose, in Strike A Pose, your mother mentions her disappointment because you didn’t continue with your dancing career. Why didn’t you keep going after working with Madonna?
Jose: I got distracted for a moment and I hid for a while. A lot my friends started dying when AIDS began to hit and I lost grip of a lot of things. I was still so young and I didn’t know how to deal with everything. All my family and friends that we had looked up to passed on. I was also caught up in messy relationships. Not to say that I regret anything, it made me who I am today, but I think that all of that was happening so fast. There were times where I had three or four friends in the hospital dying at 18-years old and nobody knew where it was coming from. It became very hard, and you do things that you wouldn’t normally do because you feel cheated and you walk around bitter. I did that for a while. I was getting so much love and adoration, but I didn’t see any of that stuff.

What are your fondest memories of Gabriel?
Luis: He was never upset about anything.

Jose: He was always smiling—so sweet.

Luis: He was such a good-natured person. We never came across someone like that, especially us—we came from a lion’s den. We come from this background of either you're fierce or you’re not. Gabriel was this little ball of sunshine and light.

How did you guys feel about the lawsuit Kevin, Oliver and Gabriel filed?
Luis: We were in the middle of doing a record deal, so we really didn’t want to get too involved with what was going on. At that time we didn’t understand why.

Jose: It divided us.

Luis: They had something in their contract from their agency that they were not honoring.

Do you guys understand why Gabriel did it?
Luis: I understand why he did it, but that wasn’t our situation. We were out and proud already. Do I understand why he wanted out the movie? Yes. Do I understand why she would want him in the movie? Yes.

How does it feel like not having a relationship with Madonna now?
Jose: Sometimes it feels weird, because you like to think that these moments you share with a person aren’t just business. There are feelings involved. I know she thinks the same. Whatever the reason is, she has moved on. Life happens and she is a celebrity as well. I don’t expect her to come knocking on my door, but I definitely miss her on a personal level. It doesn’t have to be gig. It was more than that.

How do you feel about critics who say Madonna hasn’t given people of color the proper recognition for starting the vogue dancing movement?
Jose: She took two of our own and allowed us to take it all over the world. This vogue thing needed somebody like her.

If you can give your younger selves advice what would it be?
Luis: To be more focused

Jose: Be more present.

Do you guys have any regrets?
Luis: I don’t regret anything.

Jose: Sometimes. I always say that everything that we did has made us who we are today. No I wouldn’t change anything that happened. We would do everything the same way. [But] just be more focused like Luis said.

Luis: If could have went to Los Angeles afterwards and gotten represented, I would’ve probably done that.

What are you guys doing now?
Luis: I own a show in Palm Springs, it’s called "Carnival Cabaret," and it’s a female impersonator show. I choreograph for it, but I’m not in the show. And I’m writing a memoir right now, too.

Jose: I’m working with the kids at The Door, an organization dedicated to helping youth. I just did a project with Baz Luhrmann and Jaden Smith, which is coming out on Netflix. It’s called The Get Down. I was on it as a consulting choreographer, and they asked me to be in the project. I also just got back from Sweden, from teaching a workshop there— still trying to keep dancing.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Cincinnati Music Festival Showcases The Breadth Of Black Community Building

It’s 2 p.m. on a balmy July Friday and, for a rare moment during a weekend that promises to be anything but still, Cincinnati’s Fountain Square feels quiet. A bronze statue with water free-falling from its palms marks the center of the city’s Downtown meeting place, and around the fountain’s edge, a smattering of passersby are sitting down to rest. Within the rest of the square, colorful booths manned by brown faces decorate the periphery. Tables and hangers and mannequins boast crafts both handmade and imported: skirts, dresses and crinkled fans made from ethnic prints, life-size framed artwork, shimmering jewelry, (possibly) designer handbags and bedazzled graphic tees boasting Sankofa symbols and phrases like “Thick Thighs Save Lives” and “Black 365.” These vendors are a blend of native Ohioans and those from other U.S. cities who can’t help but flock to Cincinnati during one of the area’s most festive times of the year.

Consider this the calm before the storm. By this same time tomorrow, the square will be teeming with activity orchestrated by Vibe Cincinnati, the organization showcasing the region’s multicultural delights. The hum of gentle chatter will be replaced by the boom of music from a stage occupied by community performers, and crowds will gather in front of it to film the music or two-step to it with impromptu dance partners. Those not keen on the heat will seek refuge from the sun beneath the shade of a table umbrella, or line-up up at the plethora of food trunks for some nourishment. And then at night, the masses will retreat to the seats of Paul Brown Stadium to partake in the festival that has served as a magnet for the black community for over half a century.

When you think of the bulk of festival season mainstays—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza—a low-key city like Cincinnati may not come to mind. But perhaps that’s because for 57 years, Cincinnati Music Festival, presented by P&G, has remained one of the Midwest’s best kept secrets. The longstanding festival, dubbed the largest urban music festival in the country, is molded for R&B, soul and funk lovers, many of whom travel from the likes of Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Chicago, Texas, California, and Atlanta to experience it firsthand. (This year’s lineup included Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tamia, the men of New Edition and more.)

“I am a Cincinnati homegrown girl and I think it’s just amazing that people from out of town come to Cincinnati for the music festival, just to show how Cincinnati can be lit and can be comparable to other big cities,” says Morgan A. Owens, CEO of the MAO Brands. She’s not the only Cincy native proud of the city’s yearly time in the spotlight.

“It’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,” Tim’m West, recording artist and Cincy Black Pride organizer, says. “When I first moved here everyone was like, ‘why did you move back here?’ Now it’s starting to being like, ‘oh,’ that’s not the default. ‘Oh, it’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,’ is what people are saying.”

Bertie Ray III, owner of Switch Lighting & Design, the venue hosting the weekend’s Cincinnati Black Pride Day Party, agrees. “It’s overwhelming. You’re talking about 80,000 people from throughout the Midwest. From Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, it’s just folk from everywhere. So what’s wonderful to see with this many people in the city, is new fresh energy comes to the city,” the Washington, D.C. native says. “But also over the last three or four years, Cincinnati has hosted any number of conventions within the African-American community. The NAACP convention, the [Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity] Boule Convention, the Deltas were here, the Links were here, so it’s a destination for black America.”

And although the event’s website reads “Cincinnati Music Festival,” no one in town will call it that. To everyone on the ground, both rooted and visiting, it’s simply Jazz Fest. “That’s what it was originally branded as,” Will Jones, the Marketing and Communications Manager at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, says, referring to the event’s origins as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival. “It started in 1962 and it’s been here for years outside of, I believe, 2001 through 2004—those three years they had it in Detroit. But we just call it Jazz Fest because that’s what we know it as.”

After spending a weekend in Downtown Cincinnati sampling generous helpings of local eats, brushing up on black history at the Freedom Center, and swaying to the beat of deeply-rooted music each night, it’s clear that the weekend is about more than surface level entertainment like other music festivals. The magic of Jazz Fest is seeing how the different pockets of Cincinnati’s black population come together to build each other up, whether it’s in spirit, with financial support—“We bring in millions and millions of dollars, and it just goes to show the power of the black dollar. It’s a beautiful thing to see our community support black business owners,” Owens says—or in sheer fun.

“We do have a lot to offer, you just have to seek out the opportunity just like everywhere else," she continues. “It might not be as prominent as a New York or a Chicago or an L.A. or a Miami, but Cincinnati holds it down.”

Here, Jazz Festival frequenters share their favorite memories over the years and offer a glimpse of what makes the event, and their involvement in it, so special for Cincinnati.

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Kadeen Johnson for Everyday Afrique

With African Music On The Rise, Afro-Themed Dance Parties Get To Win, Too

When walking up to the venue for New York City day party Everyday Afrique, the music greets you before you can even reach the door. Depending on the day or the DJ, you might be welcomed with a remix of Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi’s 2013 hit song “Bankulize” or embraced by Niniola’s 2017 Afrohouse single “Maradona.” The dozens of people waiting outside of the venue, the majority of which are black professionals and creatives, are dancing along to the music, seemingly unbothered by the line that stretches down the block. The lively scene outside of the venue looks considerably different than it did in 2016, when media company OkayAfrica teamed up with two popular party series, Everyday People and ElectrAfrique, to throw its inaugural Everyday Afrique event. In the three years since Everyday Afrique began, the crowd has increased from 250 people to more than 1,800 people per event, tickets are selling out faster than ever, and the African music that anchors the event has transcended the borders of Africa and is now being played on radio stations and in clubs around the world.

African music, particularly Afrobeats, has shared a prosperous give-and-take relationship with Afro-themed party series like Everyday Afrique. In the past, Afrobeats, Afrohouse, and Caribbean soca music were once exclusively celebrated by local communities living in major cities on the African continent—Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi—and diasporic transplants that returned home to these cities for the holidays. Over the last two to three years, there has been an extreme increase in demand for various genres of African music in places like Washington, D.C., New York, London, and Paris, cities that for years already maintained a high concentration of Afro-themed functions to serve their diverse populations. In these cities, Afro-themed parties like London’s Afrobeats in the Garden and New York’s Afro Night Live have done their part to curate experiences around a growing art form that had little support but that they appreciated and believed in. Now, these same parties are benefiting from the music’s newfound success and expanding just as quickly as the sounds.

Everyday Afrique has been one of the major benefactors and beneficiaries of African music’s success in NYC. Three times a year during the summer’s three major holidays—Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day—Everyday Afrique hosts an all-out sweat dripping, rump-shaking, gwara gwara-hitting dance party in rotating venues around Brooklyn. The party’s soundtrack is a collection of popular and underground Afrobeats, Afrohouse, reggae, soca, and hip-hop music provided by half a dozen DJs including Everyday People co-founder DJ Moma and ElectrAfrique founder, DJ Cortega. “Our approach for Everyday Afrique has always been one of community-building,” DJ Cortega says over the phone from his home in Dakar, Senegal. “We do this through connecting people who are like-minded, that have common objectives, that are inclusive, and using music as a platform to bring people together.”

The bulk of people who make up Everyday Afrique’s community are African born and diasporic born people who dwell in neighborhoods in Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn. Although the ages of the attendees vary, the 21+ crowd is largely dominated by millennial age professionals and creatives who likely share five or more mutual Instagram friends with any given person in the venue. There is a sense of Pan-African pride amongst the group, highlighted by “Very Black” graphic tees floating around the party and gold pendants carved in the shape of the continent dangling from attendees’ necks. Not only are the people at Everyday Afrique connected by their love for African music, but what the music represents and tells them about their culture.

A number of other Afro-themed party series that aim to conjure a similar feeling of cultural pride and community fostering have popped up in various cities around the world. Afrocode is a similar dance-heavy event that hosts weekly parties in Atlanta, New York City, and D.C. The inaugural Afrocode was organized by Ghanian entrepreneur "FredEvents" in 2013. He had the primary desire to connect the often fragmented black American, black Caribbean, and black African communities and provide a celebratory environment where they could listen to and appreciate one another’s music and cultures. "We picked a theme that wasn't solely African, but that can also bring the three cultures together to appreciate each others’ genre,” Fred explains via phone. “We knew the energy would be completely different because you are giving the best of all the three categories in one space."

 

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The energy fostered in these environments has been both a cause and effect of the diaspora’s growing desire to reconnect and learn more about their African ancestry through various cultural channels. The growing popularity of parties like these corresponds with the success of travel companies like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa, both of which create and share opportunities for black people from the diaspora to visit the continent and engage in historical and cultural experiences during their visits. “I think people are now paying attention to what it means to be African,” Fred says. “For the longest, a lot of African Americans, black people in general, have tried to seek that connection.” Although these connections are also being formed through fashion, art, and other creative mediums, nothing has seemed to connect Africa and the diaspora more than music and the spaces that are curating a vibe around it.

Afrobeats, in particular, has emerged as the leading genre during this most recent global African music takeover. The genre, which over the years has been used to define a broad collection of popular sounds coming out of West Africa, has catapulted a number of its stars into the international spotlight. Earlier this year, Afrobeats stars Burna Boy and Mr Eazi performed sets at Coachella and the summer before Afrobeats hitmaker Davido shut down London’s Wireless Festival with a highly talked about set. The former two artists were also featured on Beyonce’s latest surprise album The Lion King: The Gift, along with West African hitmakers WizKid and Tekno. The album itself appears to be an ode to the genre and its African roots and includes many of the same percussion elements as Afrobeats.

Much of the music's global appeal can be credited to its upbeat and lively instrumentation and feel-good lyrics, which tend to celebrate life, love, and positive experiences. “Afrobeats is engraved in people's culture, it's not just a cool thing,” Fred says. “People live, breathe it. It's a true culture, it's not just a music category. It feels like when hip-hop was starting out back in the day. They were telling their stories through the music. With the music comes a lot of different ways that we can showcase Africans in a different light.”

For Fred, Afrobeats seemed like the most logical breakthrough genre in the U.S. because of the hefty West African presence in cities like D.C. and New York, where both he and DJ Cortega first tried their hands at hosting Afro-themed parties. Europe has also been up on the Afrobeats wave. ElectrAfrique has touched down in Berlin and Paris, and London-based event company Sounds D’Afrique has brought the flavor of Afrobeats to London’s club scene. In each city, these gatherings are centering Afrobeats music, while simultaneously introducing locals to new artists and the sounds that energize crowds in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Jamaica, and other countries around the world.

Their success is a prime example of the adage “when opportunity meets preparation.” When Swedish born DJ Cortega first launched ElectrAfrique, he did so with a small team in Nairobi, Kenya. ElectricAfrique held its first party in 2011, the same year WizKid released his debut album Superstar and Davido dropped "Back When," the first single off Omo Baba Olowo. DJ Cortega, FredEvents, and other early Afro-themed party founders had the foresight to curate parties around a sound that had yet to find a global audience or show potential to do so. Now, the rise in attendance at these events can be directly attributed to the growth of African music.

Parties like ElectricAfrique are continuing to introduce other African people to the new popular songs produced by their neighboring countries. “Even though we're growing, it’s still relatively organic and community-based,” Cortega says. “We have never really tried to push super hard to grow. We want the event to grow naturally. We want people to enjoy being there and feel like this is a space where they are comfortable and where they identify and so they want to bring their friends and like-minded people to it. In terms of the vibe that's one of the very important elements.”

So what’s next for the growth of African music and the party series that provides the music with the grassroots marketing it needs to succeed? Neither DJ Cortega nor Fred see it slowing down anytime soon. “Africa is almost 1.2 billion people,” Fred says. “There's not a question about it being sustainable. The culture will always be there. People are always going to create. I think the part where the music is so much more important now is because people are starting to respect what being African is because they have a marketable product that they can attach a dollar value to.” Regardless of the changing landscape of the music industry, parties like Everyday Afrique, Afrocode and the like are primed to continue thriving as a result of the communities they built that may have been brought together by the music but stayed for the experience.

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Phil Emerson

E-40 The Ageless: Forty Water Memories of a Bay Area Rap Giant

In 1995 he was rhyming “Floyd Terrace” with “esopha-garus,” rapidly scrunching and expanding rhymes with torrents of slang, often hilarious and strikingly original. The audacity of E-40 has been his ability to be himself, a one-of-a-kind whose business savvy moved him far beyond rap, famously sitting courtside at huge events, funding films, owning restaurants and real estate, condos and cars, even dabbling in the tequila (naturally called, E Cuarenta). At over thirty releases, let us also not forget he’s one of the most prolific artists— in any genre— of the last three decades.

These days he’s community minded, glowingly giving back and accepting his role as local neighborhood champ. “You don’t always have to broadcast what you do on the internet or push it in the limelight or put it on the news. But I definitely do that sometimes because I want to influence other people in my position to do the same thing.”

All of this doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s never slowed musically, releasing double albums, side projects, and even trilogies in staggering artistic spurts. 2012 saw five total projects – three solo albums and two collabs with another enormous figure, Oakland’s own Too Short. His response as to how he’s able to remain in creative overdrive after all these years: “It’s all gravity.”

Practice Makes Paper, his latest release, is brimming with guests who not only add to the album’s interest factor, but also reflect E-40’s continual and far-reaching relevance. Swaths of guests include Method Man and Scarface, but also Chris Brown and G-Eazy, Schoolboy Q, Rick Ross, and others. Whether as E-Pheezy, Charlie Hustle, or 40 Belafonte, he’s one of the most uniquely consistent personalities in music, finding his style early on and never deviating. Musical landscapes change, and we grow older, but E-40 stays the same— there’s a comfort in that.

Here we talk about the early schemes of a young Earl Stevens, his relationships with other Bay giants, his time with Tupac, and other seminal, and at times peerless, moments in the career of the great Earl Stevens.

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VIBE: You started Sick Wid It Records in 1986. Tell us about the beginning. E-40: My brother, D-Shot, and I had a clothing store around the time we had just finished college. D-Shot did 22 months in Preston CYA, a California Youth Authority and after he was released, we decided we needed to slow down and stay out of trouble. So we bought a clothing store in the late 1980s and called it New Fat Clothing. We would just buy our stuff from New York or LA’s garment district and distribute them here in the Bay. At the time it was like a dice roll.

Tell us what you remember about the making of your first solo album, Federal. I was cold turkey out of the soil, you feel me? I was new and was leaving my old life behind to work on this life and use the money we’d to put into studio time. Whether it was $40 or $400, I used that money to invest back into myself. I’d walk down to Vallejo Check Cashing then walk straight to the studio and be like, “I need four hours for next Tuesday, here’s my deposit.” So while I’m at the store cashiering or stocking or whatever, I’d write lyrics and jot everything all down while listening to beats. Once I got to the studio, I’d finish like four or five songs easily and all of those those tracks over time became Federal.

What do you remember about the actual studio process and technology of the time? I remember doing it all on half-inch reels. Then a couple years later, we would mix everything onto two-inch reels. But those fucking two-inch reels held at most three songs! And each reel was something ridiculous like $350 each. It’s trippy because these days you can pay like a couple hundred bucks and have thousands of your songs stored somewhere. That’s how it was, at least where we were at in the Bay.

On the topic of the Bay, talk about your friendship with another local legend, Too Short. How did you two meet? It came about naturally. We had mutual friends and I knew him and his folks B.R. You know what that means?

B.R.? It means ‘Before Rap’ [laughs]. We had mutual friends but we never kicked it. I used to go to every Too Short show I could too. I don’t look up to too many, but I looked up to him. I grew up on all his stuff and was a real fan. We were on the same label for many years, he signed with Jive Records in ‘88 and I signed a distribution deal with them around ’94. We eventually did a record in 1996 called “Rappers Ball” and shot a legendary video with tycoons like Ice-T, Mack 10, Tupac and hella others. The grind didn’t stop from there though, we went on to do hella songs.

Another Bay standout is Boots Riley (from the Coup) who is now an acclaimed film director. There’s that famous picture of you, Boots, and Tupac together. Talk about Boots. Boots to me has always been one of those dudes that stood for what’s right. I would literally see Boots at every show that was going on in Cali. We did a song called “Santa Rita Weekends” and I felt it was legendary and we just stayed in contact ever since. He had a song where he said, ‘I got a mirror in my pocket to practice lookin’ hard,’ which I always loved. That picture you mentioned was when we were doing a video and Pac just popped in. We weren’t even expecting him but he was in the Bay for a court date.

How was Tupac that day? He hung out all day. He was in the soil. All my in-laws, all my cousins, everyone, he showed genuine love to. We was deep in apartment complexes, Lucky Supermarket, and the local check-cashing place, and everyone was just taking pictures with him. I remember everyone becoming Pac’s security that day [laughs], nobody even think about popping a balloon, you feel me? People was trippin’ because Pac was in V-Town!

Talk about your relationship with him. How did you two meet? He shouted me and the Click out on the track “Representin’ 93” from his album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and I heard it. It was at a Juneteenth event in Davis and I saw Richie Rich, this rapper from Oakland. Rich was like, ‘Yo Pac wanted me to give you his number, he wants to holler at you.’ I said, ‘For real? He wants to fuck with us?’ Rich had already known Pac for years. So I hit him up and from there, there was no turning back.

What was the studio environment like when you two met up? Every time in the studio we had a pervin’ session, you know, getting warped, smoking big turtle, smoking that big broccoli. Every time there was a new deal, we’d be in the studio celebrating, getting twisted, making songs. It was like a family reunion.

On topic of songs, I’d like to talk about a couple classics of yours. “Captain Save A Hoe,” for instance was a hit with a very memorable music video. It was just comedy. Making the music video was tons of fun too. First of all, there’s a difference in having a female that you’re locked in with and she’s faithful, that’s beautiful. But sometimes dudes have females with more miles on her than Jet Blue [laughs] Every Tom, Dick, or Harry has had relations with your girl and you’re trying to make her a housewife? That’s “Captain Save A Ho.”

Another recent song of yours, “Choices,” became a huge anthem. How’d that come about? I don’t always talk in third person but I sometimes rap in third person and I was just talking to myself when I made that song. That’s like my inner dialogue, you know? I’m just talking to myself about making choices and I caught a flow that opened up the direction of the track. Asking myself a question, then answering it. Yup!

You ended up altering the lyrics for the Golden State Warriors’ run a couple years back. Sports fans, especially here in the Bay, see you at games all the time. How do you see the Dubs doing next season? I think they’ll be right back on top of the league. Of course the league has tightened up with good players but Dubs have a lot of experience and know-how from winning so much during these five or six years. I really hated to see KD [Kevin Durant] go but it was the right move. I think the legacy will continue.

We touched on your history but I’d like to highlight your community efforts. What’s your message when it comes to giving back? The thing is, you have to give back from the heart. You have to do it right and not just for show. For instance, when I gave out backpacks to some school kids, it was on the news and all that, which is fine, it’s all gravity. But I wasn’t just handing out backpacks, I purposely chose Jansport because they have lifetime guarantees, you feel me? So that if something happens, these kids can still help themselves and get another backpack.

Speaking of kids, what’s your take on current rap you hear? Do younger artists hit you up for advice? A lot of the music is out of hand and probably wouldn’t have lasted in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s all gravity because I do like a lot of the newer stuff too. Some stuff people might not even think I’m into it. But for all you young artists: anytime anyone needs anything, needs any advice, I’m here for y’all.

Let’s end this at the beginning; full circle. What music were you into when you were younger? Do you remember when hip-hop entered the picture? I was into soul music and R&B. The Bar-Kays, Cameo, Earth Wind & Fire. For all the young bloods out there, that’s where hip-hop started! And the first time I heard rap? It was 1979 at Franklin Junior High and I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” And that was it for me. Damn brother, that was forty years ago!

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