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Johnny Nunez

Interview: Soledad O’Brien Sprinkles Black Girl Magic & Love With The Starfish Foundation

The award-winning journalist talks to VIBE about the foundation and the powers of sisterhood.  

One named Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter previously posed the question; “Who run the world?” and answered it in the same breath, “girls.” Bey was right—the 2010 census revealed women make up just over 50 percent of the U.S. population. Just last week, another study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed African-American women are the most educated group in the country.  In the past 30 years, the attendance of Black women in higher education has steadily risen in both race and gender. There are numbers that will make anyone feel good to be a woman, or at least know one. It’s also a joy for Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist and co-founder of the Starfish Foundation, a group dedicated to providing scholarships and mentorships to ambitious young women from underserved communities.

O’Brien began her mission six years ago with husband Brad Raymond following Hurricane Katrina. O'Brien wanted to help the residents and open the minds of young women with the idea of obtaining long lasting careers in their passions. “College is about having the finances but even more than that, it’s about having the support and how can people help you navigate them,” O’Brien says. “So we decided that we would start a foundation that’ll really help people not only get to college, but through college as well, and so Starfish started out of that with about just one or two girls to a group of about nine and we decided to make it official and get an executive director. So five years ago we got an executive director for the first time, and we became officially the Starfish Foundation, so now we have 25 girls each year that we put through school.”

Those girls, in turn, have become mentees to the next batch of young women, creating a true sisterhood. Sheba Turk, a former scholar of the Starfish Foundation, says elevating one another is the key to creating a growth for women in the workforce.

“If I didn’t have people like Kim Bondy and Soledad recommending me, who knows if anyone else would have taken a second look at me,” Turk says at the Sixth Annual Starfish Foundation Gala Thursday evening in New York (June 9). After graduating from University of New Orleans, Turk went on to make a splash as an anchor at Eyewitness Morning News for WWL-TV and her own show, The 504. “I think that’s why this foundation is so important and not just for black women but for minorities and all women. The foundation is about women helping women and teaching you that when you become a woman (because most of us come into this as girls) to reach back out and help other women. We have such a negative stigma with all of the reality TV we watch [with] women fighting, but we know that’s not the reality. We need these relationships to be broadcasted and the first way you do that is having them in your own life.”

This year’s current scholars dressed to the nines at the gala and channeled their inner 'Yonce as the sounds of Grammy-winning Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra filled the Tribeca Rooftop. Keeping true to the New Orleans inspiration that began O’Brien’s mission, mentees and mentors showered each other with love and appreciation.

VIBE spoke with O’Brien before the eventful gala on the importance of education, black girl magic and what the Starfish Foundation has planned next. Check out the interview below.

What would you say has changed from last year to now with the Starfish Foundation?

Soledad O’Brien: We have a different craft of young women, so this year we have about five young women. I’ve been tweeting pictures of scholars who have been graduating. It’s been really fun. One of our students who graduated from law school, if you look at my Twitter feed you’ll see her carrying her baby up to graduate. It’s been really, really fun to tweet pictures of them. We had a handful of them who graduated this year. In some ways nothing’s changed, we always chased ambitious young women who want to be successful and understand that it’s going to take a lot to be successful. They were not born into the manor. They were not handed the key to the city, and that means that they might have to work extra hard and how they have to juggle work and a lot of other things in order to be successful but they can be successful.

Every year we do a different group of students and I think every year we are refining our process. We also do a summit called “PowHERful” where we have a couple hundred young women from different communities come in; we do it in New York City, and it's hosted by Google. We'll do it in July in seven cities: Tampa, New Orleans, Birmingham, Minneapolis, New York City, L.A., and Cleveland this year. So PowHERful has really grown for us and it's a way to sort of extend our reach where we're sending 25 girls to school through our foundation.

I love that there are a lot of programs out there like that who want to help a lot of ambitious girls that don't really have that clear sense of direction on what they want to do. 

S.B: Exactly and if you didn't know, how would you know. Like if you didn't know how to apply for an internship, how would you know?

Black women are the most educated group of people in America, but at the same time, they only make up about 8 percent of private sector jobs. Why do you think there's a disconnect?

S.B: Fairly interesting, a sort of companion statistic to that is the number of young women when I go to talk at a corporation, and you as the people who are the assistants how many of them have their Bachelor's degree. Invariably, every single young woman who's black has a Bachelor's and a number of the young women who are white don't. So they're much more educated in many cases. And this is anecdotally; I know there are statistics to support this. They're much more educated than their peers. And you kind of go, “Why are you an assistant which is a good entry job but other white women who are in the same position you are academically, they got in higher?” They didn't start as an assistant. They started as a junior executive. So I think it's a couple of things. I think there is a tremendous validity. It's very hard to be things that you really don't see in front of you. I think that there's a lot that our parents instill in us, around what's possible. My mom and dad were not in business. So it was really hard for me to figure out business because I didn't live it. My dad and my mom was a teacher, my dad was a professor. So in order for me to be successful in business I literally had to hang out with people who ran businesses to learn that it was not magic. There are specific steps. And I think for a lot of our young women it's a similar thing. How would you possibly know what you could be, how would you know you could be a junior executive if you don't know any junior executives? How would you know? Like hey you could be much bigger or you could just be ballsy and go for that bigger job and fake it in the interview and just impress people with how smart you are, which a lot of kids do, but if you're not sure it's very hard to feel confident about your abilities when you don't know. So I think a lot of what we try to do with our scholars is that exact thing. Give them internships so that they're like, "Oh, I see what I can be doing." It's just expanding the information, sometimes it's just like,"Oh, I didn't know that this existed." So our job is to make sure that they do know so that they can make intelligent, thoughtful choices about their future.

I completely agree.

S.B: That's for our scholars, but that's really what PowHERful is all about as well. We actually did one in Birmingham the other day. Very interesting, a number of women who are foster kids were in the audience and we had in our panel, a young woman who just had a baby and got up there and said I was a foster child, I was abused as a kid. I'm now a lawyer, and a partner at a law firm and she blew them away. She served and this is possible, I am sitting here, here is what I did. Because I think if you look at the data around foster kids and going off to college, forget law school, going off to college the data is terrible. Because you need to see people do it and be successful to be able to execute for it by yourself. This is not magic, there is no magic here, zero. It is about figuring out the system. And sometimes I think people feel like “Oh, it's magic.” It's not magic.

No, it's hard work and determination.

S.B: Yes. And when I gave a commencement speech this year, it was really fun, and I’m always asked what do you think made you so successful. And I’m like honestly the moment I felt like quitting, I just didn't. And I can't even say I did something heroic, I just didn't quit. I'd go to my bed, I’d eat Haagen Dazs and sit in my bed and cry and wail about how everybody wasn't fair to me and life sucked, but the next morning I got up and I kept going. And I think to me that's the secret that the next day you get up and do it anyway. I think if there's some kind of magic, it's that. And so teaching people that that's what makes you successful I think is a very useful thing to do. When I left CNN, I started a production company. You have to sit down with other people who run stuff. I'm really thinking, “I’m messing things up, what should I be doing? Can you explain this to me?” You have to pick other people's brains to get good advice so you can be successful. You can't just sit there and wishfully hope something washes upon you. It doesn't work like that.

This year there were a slew of stories coming from Chicago and Detroit where schools are literally deteriorating and children are still in these schools trying to get an education. Why do you think there's a lack of funding? Do you think there's a lack of funding or a lack of interest when it comes to the education system these days?

S.B: You know, I think because it's not very tangible, there are people who can take kids out of school districts and they go make thoughtful decisions about education. I think people who can't are necessarily well represented by their elected official. So if you're in poverty, I don't get the sense that people are out there trying to win their vote. So I think it's hard and also it's not necessarily tangible. Education is a thing you have to invest in over the next 20 years. You have to decide, this is a moral issue, something that is a value to us. We're not going to see results tomorrow morning, and by Friday I’m not going to have a chart that tells you it has all been solved. You have to decide, as a community, and not as a Republican, not as a Democrat, not as an Independent, but as a community do we value children. Not just my children, not just your children, but in everybody’s kid. Because guess what, as a community we are utterly screwed if we do not educate everyone for jobs that exist today. You can't have a hole in a boat and be like, well it's not my end of the boat, we're good. It doesn't work like that. But I think sometimes it's so tangible and politicians run on what exists at this moment. Like that whole transgender back root thing grew to a large degree is a very hot button issue.

I wish that we can kind of find a way to make all of these issues hot button issues because they affect all of us, and they do effect the future.

S.B: Absolutely. And I think the movement towards figuring out how to improve public schools, and school reforms generally has grown a lot over the last five years. Because people and corporations are recognizing without a valuable workforce, it's going to be hard to hire people. And cities are recognizing without a workforce that's being paid money, we don't have a tax base. So it actually does matter. It's going to have really rich residents, but it actually needs everybody to be working a job and paying taxes. There needs to have home tax, property tax, sales tax, and income tax. That is the kind of stuff that builds your roads, funds the mayor’s office, pays for your police and your fire. So it is ultimately self-interest, to make sure that even those with the least voice among you are gaining from the employed in some capacity.

Anything else you would like to add?

S.B: I would just say that's a real focus for our scholars, and our powHERful students. It's exactly that. It's figuring out how do we get you in a workforce, in a way that you're passionate about your career, and in a way that you are absolutely positioned to make the most money you possibly can, in a career that's most interesting and most exciting to you. It can be whatever you want it to be. It just has to be something that you're excited to do and that you love to do.

For more information on the Starfish Foundation, visit their website here.

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Music Sermon: Classic Conscious Posse Cuts For The Hip-Hop Generation

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

The year 1985 saw one of the biggest moments in music history when Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson gathered pop and rock stars from across the musical spectrum as U.S.A. for Africa for the anthemic “We Are The World,” raising funds for short and long-term humanitarian aid throughout Africa.

The following year, Dexter Scott King was inspired to create a similar moment. After decades-long efforts in Congress with pushes from public figures and notable artists, his father Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was finally being observed as a national holiday. King wanted to tap younger energy - the growing hip-hop generation – to put a spin on “We Are The World” in commemoration of the first MLK Day.

King reached out to Kurtis Blow, who’d been part of a mass anti-apartheid project the year prior. “I get a call… he says, ‘Hello, Kurtis. I want you to record a song for my father.’ I hung up on him,” Blow told Vlad TV. “He calls me back, ‘I’m serious, I’m Dexter Scott King.’ I said, ‘You playin’.” Kurtis finally realized nobody was playing on his phone, and they got to work. With Blow as producer, King and co-writer/co-producer Phillip Jones assembled a who’s who of young hip urban and urban crossover artists. “Anyone who was too young for ‘We are the World,’” he explained to Vlad: El Debarge, Stephanie Mills, Whitney Houston, Lisa Lisa, Full Force, Stephanie Mills, Teena Marie, Menudo (featuring young Ricky Martin), New Edition, Stacy Lattisaw, James JT Taylor, Whodini, Run-DMC, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys and Kurtis.

They planned to shoot a video at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change — the designated recipient of all proceeds from the song — to give it a proper spotlight, but they needed money. A benefactor showed up in the form of Prince. Yes, that Prince. According to Kurtis, The Purple One donated $90,000 for a visual.

At this point, supergroups for a worthy cause weren’t a brand new thing. Prior to “We Are The World,” there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for Ethiopian Famine Relief. In 1985, Artists United Against Apartheid released “Sun City,” but it was nowhere near as big a hit or pop culture moment as the other two.

“King Holiday” was the first of these event songs for us. For something specifically and directly connected to and about us.

After that, black musicians teamed up were several other socially-charged collaborations that took on issues close to home or challenged us as a community to do better–and then there weren’t any more of them. It could be because of lack of incentive, or abundance of egos. Or shrinking of artist pools in some areas, or the shrinking of budgets overall. It’s certainly not due to lack of topical options. Whatever the cause, in honor of MLK Day, we’re going to look back at some of the great supergroup movement moments in black music.

STOP THE VIOLENCE MOVEMENT: “SELF-DESTRUCTION” – 1989

In the three short years between “King Holiday” and “Self-Destruction,” rap expanded from a niche genre to a full cultural movement. But along with that ascension came a growing affiliation with violence. In ‘87 and ‘88, melees were breaking out at rap concerts, and the art form was held solely responsible. Two incidents at New York’s Nassau Coliseum, one with a fatality, were the breaking point. Just as hip hop was coming into its own, it was in danger of stalling out. Media and community leaders were condemning rap as a negative influence. Venues started banning rap concerts, a pall hung that over rap shows and tours until the Hard Knock Life Tour ushered in a new era of all-rap shows more than a decade later.

The situation was dire. Journalist Nelson George contacted music executive Ann Carli with an idea: a posse cut with an anti-violence message. They took the name “Stop the Violence Movement” from a Boogie Down Productions song, and so appropriately enlisted BDP’s help. “This wasn’t about police brutality,” founding member D-Nice said around the song’s 25th anniversary. “This was about how we were killing each other and why we needed to put a stop to it.” The 17-year-old D-Nice produced the song, and BDP leader KRS-One laid his verse down first, followed by some of the best-known rappers on the East Coast: Ms. Melodie, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic and Just-Ice. Just was a controversial addition because he’d recently been accused of shooting someone, but his presence lent sincerity to the message. The video, shot in part at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was the largest gathering of rappers at one time to date. Beef was squashed, like former rivals DJ Red Alert and DJ Marley Marl pictured together at Scott LaRock’s grave. And though the record featured all east coast lyricists, Tone Loc showed up to rep the west in solidarity.

“Self-Destruction” was released on Martin Luther King, Jr Day in 1989, and received video support, but it didn’t get mainstream radio airplay. It still reached No. 1 on the rap charts in March and stayed there for ten weeks, driving enough sales enough to raise $500,000 for the National Urban League. The Stop the Violence Movement and “Self-Destruction” are still considered one of the most important moments in hip hop. The following year, the west coast took the baton.

WEST COAST HIP HOP ALL-STARS: “WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME GANG” – 1990

Even if you’ve never set foot on the left coast, you know that LA was embroiled with racial tension, gang violence and a confirmed distrust between the black community and law enforcement in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s the climate that birthed “F*ck the Police” and Boyz N The Hood. “All in the Same Gang” was created in the same spirit as “Self-Destruction,” but specifically addressing the violence between nearly 100,000 Los Angeles area gang members.

Michael Concepcion, a founding member of the Crips, conceived the idea after a shootout left him paralyzed from the waist down. He reached out to key west coast artists – some former gang members themselves – to float the idea. Once they were on board, he pitched it Warner Brothers Records. His path was no doubt made easier by the success of “We’re All in the Same Gang.” Additionally, hip-hop’s commercial viability was being recognized as a real thing thanks to Yo! MTV Raps, among other factors. Warner got on board. The single was produced by Dr. Dre––his first track that wasn’t for Ruthless Records––and proceeds were designated for LA youth organization Project Build.

The track featured 14 of the west coast’s biggest rap and rap-affiliated stars, including Tone Loc, Young MC, Digital Underground, MC Hammer, JJ Fad, Michel'le, Def Jeff, Oaktown's 3-5-7, and N.W.A. The video was shot in Watts at the Nickerson Gardens projects––Blood territory, but the Bloods and Crips provided joint security during a temporary truce. Again, assisted with the foundation laid by “Self-Destruction” and illustrating how far rap had come in a short time, the single surpassed the success of its east coast predecessor. It not only hit No. 1, but crossed over to the Hot 100 chart and earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

H.E.A.L. (Human Education Against Lies): “HEAL YOURSELF” – 1991

KRS-One is hip-hop’s Al Sharpton. If there’s some organizing poppin’ off, he or Chuck D––who may as well be hip-hop’s Jesse Jackson––is in the mix. It’s what they do; it’s their role in the culture. KRS and Chuck talked about this during a Rap City takeover in 1992, “The reason I came up with certain topics like H.E.A.L. and Self Destruction, etc., is because of the need for black people to be organized…So we get most of the rappers together, we organize, say something of some relevance…With rap music, when it’s time to get busy, I can get on the phone with Kane and go,‘Yo Kane, what’s up?’ I can get on the phone with Heavy and go ‘Yo Heavy, what’s up?’ and they’ll be right there.”

KRS always had a focus on self-education. Distrust of the education system and messages from mainstream media was a prevalent theme in his music. The collective H.E.A.L., named for an acronym Human Education Against Lies, expanded on that as a movement against propaganda and false information. “Heal Yourself” features Kid Capri, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J (perhaps redeeming himself for not participating in “Self Destruction”), MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Ms Melodie, Jam Master Jay, DMC, Freddie Foxx and KRS-One kicking knowledge about education, colorism, drugs, sex, AIDS, domestic violence and politics. The collaborative released a full album, Civilization vs. Technology, but as the lead track, “Heal Yourself,” is the best-known.

B.M.U. (Black Men United): “U WILL KNOW” – 1994

All the black male singers in the known universe came together to create this uplifting theme song for the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack. “U Will Know” is one of those moments unlikely to happen again, simply because there aren’t enough artists to pull off an event outing of this magnitude. The death of R&B groups alone probably halved the potential roster.

Aaron Hall, After 7, Al B. Sure!, Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight, Christopher Williams, Guy, El DeBarge, Gerald LeVert, H-Town, INTRO, Joe, Keith Sweat, The Rude Boys, Portrait, R. Kelly, Silk, Stokley Williams, Tevin Campbell, Raphael Saadiq (on bass) and the Tony’s, Usher, Lenny Kravitz (also on bass). Yes, all of ‘em. Together. Same song. Your church’s Men’s Day Mass Choir could never.

But “U Will Know” is more than a soundtrack song; it’s now part of soul music lore. The gospel-infused track was written by a young D’Angelo, and his brother. It was the second song he’d ever written, on his first demo, and his publisher placed it for the film. He’s often credited the song with landing him his deal.

Looking back on the video now, he belongs amongst those artists and their voices and talents, but in actuality he was the new kid. “It was surreal,” he shared in a 2014 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “Here I am in a room with all my heroes.”

The track hit No. 4 on the Billboard R&B chart and cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100. But the biggest takeaway, if we’re keeping it a buck, is that Gerald Levert lowkey called everybody else his background singers.

“FREEDOM (The Theme from Panther)” – 1995

In 1995, it was the ladies’ turn, with a once-in-a-career mass assembly for the Panther soundtrack. “Freedom” originated on Atlanta R&B singer and Dungeon Family affiliate Joi’s super slept-on debut album, The Pendulum Vibe. Director Mario Van Peebles then had the idea to flip the Dallas Austin track for the Panther soundtrack and gathered, apparently, every black female artist signed to a label. Many reports say over 60 artists were involved, but VIBE cited 93 artists in its August 1995 issue – all for a monumental song and video.

“Freedom” was promoted as a tribute to the women who’ve fought in the trenches for liberation and justice like Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman (note: here’s a moment where it’s acceptable to evoke Tubman, rappers), Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. The collaboration encompassed female artists across multiple genres. The main edit featured Vanessa Williams, Mary J. Blige, Zhane, TLC, Aaliyah, Caron Wheeler, Pebbles, Xscape, Brownstone, Karyn White, Amel Larrieux, Monica, En Vogue, Joi, Queen Latifah, Patra, N’Dea Davenport and Miss Jones (seriously, everybody with a deal) on vocals. (In a cute parallel to “You Will Know,” vocal arrangement was in the hands of a not-yet-known Angie Stone).

There was also an all-rap version with Patra, Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, Left Eye, Yo-Yo, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello (Spoken word. Rap. Same.). The lyrics addressed standing up to racism and oppression, but also fighting against misogyny and sexism, all through sisterhood.

“I represent not only in the kitchen and the bedroom / But also in the boardroom so give me more room / Deny my opportunity, you in jeopardy / Yo, yo, set me free, don't hinder me, let me be”

There's only one thing infuriating about “Freedom:” there’s so little story around it. Nothing like this had ever happened before and will probably never happen again (there aren’t enough artists!), but there’s no easily-found behind-the-scenes footage, no EPK interviews, no making-of documentation. This was obviously conceived to be a moment, but wasn’t documented as such, which is a loss to music history. There’s not even a mass choir name!

---

Over the years, these supergroup projects continue to pop up occasionally as world events call for them. There was even a “We are the World 25” for Haiti disaster relief. However, the art form of conscious posse cuts has fallen off. In 2015, The Game spearheaded collective of rappers and R&B singers for “Don’t Shoot,” a tribute to Michael Brown and in support of Ferguson, but it wasn’t a moment. There wasn’t the requisite in-studio-with-headphones video. In an age where artists can’t easily agree to outside projects without the label in a huff, when it’s not as easy to get on the phone with your peers the way KRS One did and summon them for action, and when verses can be sent via email with no direct connection with collaborators, the comradery and communion in these projects is lost, and that was the heart. Fortunately, time hasn’t dulled the relevance of these earlier moments.

PS: Somebody give MC Lyte the “Most Consistent” award for being in basically all of these joints.

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Mac Miller performs during Behind The Scenes With Mac Miller Filming Music Choice's 'Take Back Your Music' Campaign at Music Choice on July 17, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Thundercat, Juicy J, Ariana Grande And More Pay Tribute To Mac Miller For 27th Birthday

It's not lost on many just how much Mac Miller's influence affects today's lovers of hip-hop. The rapper and songwriter's passing was a blow to the industry last year as he seemed to be hitting a special space in his creative journey.

With today (Jan. 19) being what would've been his 27th birthday, friends and musical partners are sharing stories and messages of love about their favorite Capricorn.

Frequent collaborator and friend Thundercat shared on Twitter a moment Mac helped create with the "Them Changes" artist and his family. "All three of us were in the same room, playing and creating and enjoying music with Mac," he tweeted about an impromptu session with his brothers and Mac.

"Mac was and always will be a special dude, he was definitely Lebowski to me. I will always remember a man I considered to be another one of my real brothers and best of friends in the short time we got to spend together. I miss him so much every day."

See more touching messages from Mac's friends below.

Mac was hands down one of thee freshest people I’ve met so far in life, never a dull moment. I’ll share one of my favorite moments with you guys on this most dope day. I always enjoyed getting a chance to work with him, we would spend days at a time...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

..Creating music, playing music and introducing each other to new music all the time. This is the day he met my brothers @drummaboiblue1 & @_K_I_N_T_A_R_O_ it was a bit of a whirlwind how it all happened because at separate times they both came flying...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...through the studio door at separate times of the late night. My older brother @drummaboiblue1 kicked the door in and starts rapping and making hip hop hands at Mac who was sitting at the computer and it was so intense he just turned and looked at me like..

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...”Holy shit, this is your brother?” I didn’t know what to expect next because it could have easily gone south, but I got a chance to see what made Mac so special. My brother is hands down the most amazing drummer in the world *dont at me* and what I saw...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...from Mac really stays in my heart because I watched him turn my older brothers energy into creative energy by challenging him about the title of best drummer in the world, and handing him pots & pans and things from around the studio and the house...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

..shortly after Mac turns to me & says “hey man your brother @_K_I_N_T_A_R_O_ is gonna come by, I immediately felt like there was a possibility that this would be overwhelming for Mac, as I have seen from past situations in life experience with people & us..

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...but none the less, all three of us were in the same room, playing and creating and enjoying music with Mac. For those that don’t see the significance, music and family can be a very intense experience in itself in life (if you know, you understand)....

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...it’s not always so easy and lighthearted like everyone would like to imagine it is however as it may be, the night went on,and the moment passed. Since that moment me and my brothers never really would be in that same setting and satire for years...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...the reason that this story is so special is because while we were working on what’s the use, he started going through old music and came across that song, when he played it I began to tear up and I had to keep myself together because it was so special...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...that he captured it! Almost like a photo. he turned to me and reminded me of how wild that night was and we had a good laugh about it and continued working. No one really owns any recordings of us like that, so it was really special to me...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...Mac was and always will be a special dude, he was definitely Lebowski to me. I will always remember a man I considered to be another one of my real brothers and best of friends in the short time we got to spend together. I miss him so much every day...

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

...he changed my life in a real way. Thank you @MacMiller Happy Birthday! pic.twitter.com/4HVdwj2fMs

— ashy daddy (@Thundercat) January 19, 2019

https://twitter.com/ArianaGrande/status/1086537160079990784

Happy birthday Mac Miller! pic.twitter.com/DT31Smpbqt

— Hi-Tek (@HiTek) January 19, 2019

Happy Birthday @MacMiller. Love You Always & Forever

— THE INTERNET (@intanetz) January 19, 2019

Smile today - Mac Miller ❤️ pic.twitter.com/l5rmQDu5XE

— Karen Civil (@KarenCivil) January 19, 2019

 

View this post on Instagram

 

damn i miss this so much! i miss jamming with you and writing with you and talking about anything and everything. just watching you produce was my favorite. i miss the way you used to support me in everything that i did. i miss your smile and your tight ass hugs. i love you. happy birthday to a legend.

A post shared by NJOMZA (@notnjomza) on Jan 19, 2019 at 10:07am PST

Happy birthday to one of the purest artists I’ve ever known, Mac Miller 🙏🏾 RIP https://t.co/e8IIGaRjhx

— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) January 19, 2019

we miss you and love you Mac Miller happy birthday

— rex orange county (@rexorangecounty) January 19, 2019

Happy bday to my brother Mac Miller i miss my bro every day https://t.co/pXAn552l1w

— juicy j (@therealjuicyj) January 19, 2019

happy birthday Mac! 👼 tell your friends you love em twice as much.

— bear (@6LACK) January 19, 2019

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Nathan Pearcy

Planted Not Buried: The Moral Courage Of Asante McGee

One would think the tides would turn after the six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly pried the wool from the eyes and ears of negligent music fans two weeks ago. Executive produced by writer and filmmaker dream hampton (stylized as such to honor bell hooks), over 12 million viewers total were gifted proof of Kelly’s predatory ways by archived interviews from the man himself with gripping testimonies from black women spanning the ages of 16 to 33.

While watching the 6-hour series, it became clear that Kelly’s 30 years in the game traumatized the lives of those he allegedly sang about in his platinum and gold hits. It’s a factor that would morally awaken anyone, but between protests and his label departure from Sony, something else happened that wasn’t seen in the wrecking of other abhorrent figures.

Sleuth-like behavior from the court of public opinion reared its head in the other direction, shaming the women who came forward with their stories. Hate came tenfold toward hampton for her previous career in music journalism, particularly a profile on Kelly in VIBE’s 2002 issue, a month before he was accused of engaging in sex acts with a minor on videotape.

Not only were hampton’s character and prior working relationships brought into question, but the intake of Kelly’s music also skyrocketed with average streams totaling 1.7 million a day compared to the 955,600 average in 2018. Even as Atlanta and Chicago district attorneys announced investigations, the singer celebrated his birthday with reported girlfriend Jocelyn Savage and adoring fans while singing “Bump n’ Grind.” Although Savage sat in the club with Kelly, her parents Timothy and Jonjelyn Savage hadn’t (and still haven’t) seen their daughter in several years since she met the singer at the age of 17.

Memories like cookouts, proms, love tales and weddings soundtracked by R. Kelly trumped a conscientious duty to at least lend an ear to black women. From the outside, black women continued to go unprotected as memes and Instagram influencers turned their pain into comedic relief. With black women at the front of today’s movements (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo) and the current political battle in the White House (Rep. Maxine Waters and Sen. Kamala Harris), moral courage from the rest of us shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

In a digital space where endorphins rise in the blink of an Instagram notification, it’s not lost on many that black women go ignored in cases of sexual violence. Presumably, it’s more important to take part in “call out culture” instead of adhering to black women who’ve sacrificed their bare bones for our community, preferably black men.

In the throes of the backward backlash, one of R. Kelly’s alleged victims, Asante McGee, stands as a gleam of hope for young black girls and women. It’s the mission statement during our conversation with McGee, one of the first women to publically share her story of her time spent living in the Atlanta home where Kelly reportedly kept women captive for sexual purposes.

For McGee and other survivors like Lisa Van Allen and Lizzette Martinez, there’s no joy in recalling the emotional, mental and sexual abuse by Kelly, but the determination to hold the embattled singer accountable for his actions is worth it.

“I have young girls inboxing me asking how they can spread the word; they want to help others,” McGee says during our phone interview. While the rest of us are in shock over black women standing up for Kelly, the mother of three is centered on standing up against the other R. Kellys of the world who are disguised as our friends, uncles and pastors.

Even as a TMZ report claimed McGee was contacted for a criminal investigation against Kelly, McGee says no one has done so, promoting her to be more vocal in her journey to share her truth.

It’s in her tone, calm and reserved, while seemingly being at peace as the public processes what’s been hiding in plain sight for so long.

“I've received more positive than negative [messages on social media] so I had to learn to outweigh what was best for me and my health,” she adds. “If I continued to focus so much on the negative, I wouldn’t be able to continue this journey on speaking out to young girls and women in general.”

As shared on Surviving R. Kelly, McGee opened up about being a fan who had the chance to travel with Kelly for two years before being invited to live in his Atlanta home. While there for only a few weeks, the days were unbearable once she realized she was there to be a servant to Kelly’s desires.

For McGee, the aftermath of the documentary was just as eye-opening since she learned how many people were complicit as well as the lengthy timeline of his reported behavior. It’s a juxtaposition many sexual assault survivors face in the aftermath of their healing. Studies have shown black women who face sexual violence in their lives have a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation, pain-related health problems, and low self-esteem.

Just a day before our interview, a page titled “Surviving Lies” surfaced on Facebook in an effort to discredit McGee and another survivor, Faith Rodgers. Mugshots from McGee’s troubled past were collaged together and a video of her ex-boyfriend taping a conversation with her then 18-year-old daughter without her consent also resurfaced. Believed to be conducted by a member of Kelly’s camp, McGee doubts it’s Kelly himself behind the page for one desolate reason.

“Rob is the one that does everything via video so he's not going to make a page called ‘Surviving Lies’ or any kind of website,” she says. “Any announcement he would make will be through a song or a video. I just feel like the person behind it has to be a fan taking up for him, but not realizing that page is actually showing that he's guilty.” It was taken down hours later but another quickly surfaced.

The tide will be brutal but McGee isn’t giving up any time soon.

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There’s a lot to take in here, but we can start off small. Sometimes, subjects don’t like to watch the documentaries they participate in. Have you watched Surviving? If so, what was your reaction?

Asante McGee: When I first saw the documentary, the first night had me very emotional because I learned a lot of things that I didn't know about him. Also even finding out that people knew about the things he was doing and were actually covering up for him.

So for the documentary, it was very emotional. With the documentary promoting itself, I know a lot of people were still defending him. But after night one, I just knew that we would change the minds of those who have defended him because of how in-depth it was. But then you had a lot of people claiming it was fake or scripted.

It was heartbreaking to watch and it was even more heartbreaking to see that people were still sticking up for him. There’s even a video of popular Instagram figures like Rizza Islam in tears while standing up for Kelly. How has the reaction been for you, especially from black men?

#SurvivingRKelly I Don’t Wanna Hear Anymore Of This .. pic.twitter.com/y5zMoZmmZW

— 🔥 ɖŗɛ (@thedreswift) January 6, 2019

I received a lot of support from black men personally. They’ve been in my DMs thanking me for sharing my story and saying "As a father of young black girls, it hits home." They're happy that women like me are speaking out and actually letting people know just how much he's capable of.

I've seen a lot of black celebrities that weren't even speaking on the subject that have now come forward. I've seen a few black men that are still taking up for him, which (laughs) I really don't understand how and why, but I've seen more support from those not taking up for him.

Do you think your wounds are healed? I’ve seen interviews where people have asked questions and treated this like a reality show and not cases of sexual assault.

My wounds have definitely not been healed. While watching the documentary, I feel like I was reliving the events, especially when it got to the part of me going to house and just showing that black room.

What was it about your room that prevented you from going into the “black room” instead?

I didn’t want to enter my room because that’s where I felt like a prisoner. I was only allowed to come out of that room when someone would knock on my door telling me to come downstairs or if I was summoned to the black room. The black room is where we were forced to do all kinds of sexual acts with him and each other. When you were summoned to the black room you knew you were not going to enjoy it.

When you're on the outside looking in, people are generally judging. I don’t think people realize how emotional things got, and how questions like, “What happened next?” on social media as the documentary aired can be triggering.

I understand that you may want to engage in a conversation with us, but that wasn’t the time because we had just revealed a lot of embarrassing things to the entire world. That was not a moment to be proud of. I just wish people would just understand and I know a lot of people didn't mean any harm in doing it, but you know after I calmed down I explained to those why I didn't want to talk to them, they understood.

Do you feel like you're learning new things about yourself in this process?

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Asante McGee (@asante_shelthia) on Dec 7, 2018 at 8:58am PST

Definitely. I didn't realize how strong I was until now. I think I built myself to become strong after the documentary aired because like I said, I was receiving a lot of backlash prior to the doc and even leading up to it and I thought it would mentally break me down. I'm happy to know that I am stronger than that. I’m overcoming a lot of obstacles I didn't think I would overcome.

That's beautiful. The questions, as well as this interview, can be draining. It also doesn’t help that there’s a Facebook page called “Surviving Lies” floating around. Do you think R. Kelly was behind that?

Rob is the one that does everything via video so he's not going to make a page called ‘Surviving Lies’ or any kind of website. Any announcement he would make will be through a song or a video. I just feel like the person behind it has to be a fan taking up for him, but not realizing that page is actually showing that he's guilty.

Why are you trying to expose his victims? It's like you're trying to intimidate us and trying to get us to shut up by bringing out our past or just doing anything you can to manipulate the situation for people to say, “Oh, well that person was lying.” Their goal was to discredit us one by one.

The sad part about it is that they took that one down but that person has since created another one. So that it's another page saying the same stuff over again.

There was also a claim that you teamed with Jocelyn's father, Timothy Savage, to extort money from Kelly. Where do you think that accusation came from?

My ex and I had a bitter breakup so he’s behind that. I opened an HVAC business and he had one too, but the state sent him a cease and desist for his business due to fraud.

He knew that I contacted the Savages once I left the Atlanta home to inform them about their daughter. My ex knew I was helping them to get their daughter back and after our bitter breakup, he blamed me for his business closing and wanted to get back at me. He knew my reasons for going to his concert in December of 2016, I was on the phone with him the entire time. He’s trying to make money by using my name and discrediting me.

He also believed I was paid for my interview with Kelly so he taped a conversation with my daughter without her permission. She was 18 at the time and we were in a bad place. Like any parents and daughters, me and my daughter were having issues and she actually moved out and lived with someone else. He used that opportunity to call her after he saw me on the Megyn Kelly show. He knew that he could manipulate my daughter into saying whatever he wanted her to say so if you listen clearly to the conversation, you can hear how he's baiting her to say certain things.

At the end of the recording, you can hear her saying that I'm texting, “Do not tell him where he lives, he might be trying to kill me.” So clearly you can hear me saying that I'm afraid of this guy because of his personal vendetta against me.

He figured, “This is about to be my payday, I'm gonna go ahead and do this.” The video has actually been out since May and it just so happened that they weren't spreading it around until after the docuseries to discredit whatever I was saying.

How do you remain so zen during these times? How do you fight back during these negative clouds now?

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Asante McGee (@asante_shelthia) on Dec 11, 2018 at 6:11am PST

What really keeps me going and that motivates me every day is when I see these messages telling me how proud they are or they're sharing their stories and because we came forward, others are able to also come forward and start their healing process.

I have young girls inboxing me asking how they can spread the word, they want to help others. So just from receiving those messages, I've received more positive than negative so I had to learn to outweigh what was best for me and my health. If I continued to focus so much on the negative, I wouldn’t be able to continue this journey on speaking out to young girls and women in general. He's going to have these fans and they're always going to believe him, that’s the tough part.

What can people expect from your book, No Longer Trapped In The Closet?

I recently released the book (Jan. 3), but it came together as the BuzzFeed story and my interview with Megyn Kelly came out. At the time, I read the comments and just saw a lot of people doubting me because of my age. It said, “Oh, she’s lying. She’s too old.”

I just wanted people to get a better understanding of my life so they can say, “Oh okay, she was going through this and why she trusted him so much.” I included evidence to support my claims with him.

Do you ever think about the other girls who were in the house with you? Do they ever cross your mind?

I think about them every day. It's one of the reasons why I came forward, to begin with. My breaking point wasn’t just one moment. The controlling and dictating when I can eat and bathe was hard but there was one girl in particular who was close to my daughter’s age (who was a teenager at the time) doing things to him in front of me and other people. It hit too close to home. I thought, “I’ve heard the rumors,” but to see this young girl in his presence was too much. I knew at that point that this needed to stop.

Would you be comfortable sharing what that was?

The mind-blowing thing that I witnessed happened when it was myself, the young lady, him, one of his assistants and another girl. We were all sitting in his cigar room in the Atlanta house, just listening to music and drinking alcohol. All of sudden she just pops his penis out and just started performing fellatio on him. I'm hearing the sounds and I look up like “What's going on?” and everyone around me did not seem bothered.

I was the only one that was bothered by what's going on. I'm just like, “What in the hell, are you serious?” And I looked back down and tried to ignore but in my mind, I'm envisioning my daughter. This could be my daughter.

Can you describe your relationship with your daughters now as opposed to when you dealt with R. Kelly?

I’m sure other mothers can relate to this; mothers and teenagers have their ups and downs. This was a period where kids start to rebel against their parents. Now we are in a better place and that’s what matters and my daughter is very supportive of my story and this movement.

Has it been hard to tune into your sexuality after all of this?

My sexuality hasn't changed in any way, but it is hard for me to trust a man. At this point, any man that I have been in contact with has a hidden agenda. I've tried to date after Rob and it was a hidden agenda behind it. At this time, I don't have a question [or] doubt about my sexuality, it's just my trust in men in general.

McGee released her memoir No Longer Trapped In The Closet: The Assante McGee Story prior to the airing of Surviving R.Kelly. You can purchase the book from Amazon here.

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