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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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NEXT: Emotional Oranges Sing Tales Of Modern Love Behind Mysterious Blinds

As of late, New York’s Brooklyn Steel has acted as a safe space for budding performers of the R&B flavor to bring live music to the fans. On a brisk fall evening, fans of Emotional Oranges follow stickers that act as breadcrumbs to the venue. It’s a perfect treat for them given the anonymous nature of the presumed duo. Singles like the flirtatious “Motion” and “Personal” not only offer reasons to slide to the dance floor but an ode to their ability to marry disco blends, instrumental productions, and 808s, resulting in a very special cocktail of modern R&B.

When members known as "A" and "V" take the stage in front of the sold-out crowd, they’re imaginative in every way. The venue turns into a mood ring of sorts as their silhouettes are met with lavender hues during “Built That Way,” blue for “Your Best Friend Is A Hater” and a somber red for “Corners of My Mind.” They may be a wonder, but the stories heard on the aforementioned tracks reflect the ins and outs of modern love. Ins being the adrenaline of meeting someone new in a two-star bar and the outs being the situationship that follows it. Fantasies of what love should be and reflections of what it could have been flooding the Emotional Oranges' debut project The Juice Vol. 1, giving listeners honest storytelling. It’s something producer/engineer “A” and female vocalist “V” pride themselves on.

“I think a lot of our music stems from real experience, not just other people’s stories, but our lives as well,” V says a few moons later in the VIBE office. Their most daring songs like “Hold You Back,” a back and forth about a woman falling for another girl while in relations with a guy came from a simple conversation between the two. “Hold You Back” as well as songs from their newly released follow-up, The Juice Vol. 2 aren’t built for the radio or a speakeasy, but for listeners who enjoy a bit of spritz in their R&B.

“It goes back to the expectations,” A says. “People get in the studio and it's a writer setup with another writer. The expectation is a song for the club, or a deep song or something for the “quintessential” album, but with us, there's none of that.”

Due to their anonymity, Emotional Oranges don’t worry about playing up their personality or staying in a sound bubble. Their mysterious allure comes with creative freedom. “I think it actually helps us do things faster,” V continues. “Vol. 2 was written in two weeks. A lot of the production takes 5, 6, 7 months, but in terms of ideation that process was super fast.”

The Juice Vol. 2 continues to toy with their style of intentional R&B; songs like “Don’t Be Lazy” jump right to the punch. “Let me lick and taste it,” the two sing with other tracks like “West Coast Love” pays homage to East Coast legends A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 jam, “Can I Kick It.” There’s also “Iconic,” that toys with the sounds of Miami’s 90s underground. Produced by Dante Jones of THEY., the track aligns with the Los Angeles-based duo's mission of keeping their music free-flowing.

A and V of Emotional Oranges came to be in 2017 but the group moved as a collective comprised of “normal people” in 2015. Those people included songwriters and producers, leading many to wonder just who made up the group. Speaking to Noisey earlier this year, EO shared how their debut single “Motion” doesn’t feature V, but another vocalist. "If you listen real carefully, on our first single ‘Motion,’ that’s our first singer. She's an A&R at a big label. The rest of the songs are our new singer," they said at the time. “We've all worked regular jobs. We're very regular people. And we came together for one unified vision. I tried a lot of things in my life that didn't work. I tried to put so many things together. It just came down to authenticity.” Some of the things that didn’t work were trying to bend towards a label's passive-aggressive suggestions.

“When you have labels telling you who you are as an artist, that doesn't work,” A says. “It might work for a song but not for the longevity of your career.” He also shared how artists should be mindful of the relationships they have with a label, a notion that might not be on the mind of a green artist. “It's not the idea of a label it’s the idea of someone telling you that you have to compromise your integrity in order to get to the next level, you have to eliminate that and eliminate the expectations of it to make money off of this tomorrow,” he says.“But for us, I think it's very liberating. We’re releasing music we love and not being given a deadline or told what to wear. To free yourself from all these things has been the most liberating for us.”

With their loyal and true fan base known as the “citrus squad,” Emotional Oranges got to experience just how deep their influence has been. Their fan merch with the simple words “emotional” across the right side of their tees and sweatshirts were later seen in the stores of Forever 21 without any credit. “I take it as a compliment,” V says. “They always copy what’s hot.”

Merch:

 

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- 🧡 Emotional Oranges 🧡 🍊 9/14/19 🍊 Tags: #emo #grunge #makeup #edgy #emomakeup #grungemakeup #dark #aesthetic #tumblr #tumblraesthetic #outfits #black #bandtees #rock #music #skinnyjeans #selfie #mirrorselfie #smokeyeye #eyeliner #alternative #alternativeaesthetic #sad #dark #nepali #canadian #explore #explorepage #emotionaloranges #chiiild @hellochiiild @emotionaloranges

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Forever 21:

They’re also one of the artists who provide a phone number for their fans. It’s not a way of funneling data for EO, but instead, a way for them to get to know their squad. “Even at the shows, they’ll come backstage and tell us their names. One time, there were four different couples in Toronto who bought meet and greet tickets twice," V recalls. "They spent $150 each twice in three months. They all said, ‘Do you remember us?’ and it’s like, ‘Of course!’ Moments like that have been great.”

“They’ll also tell their family members to come to shows,” V adds while asking A about a Texas-based fan who shared his love for EO with his twin sister from Durham. That curious person then became a fan, stretching the Emotional Oranges family a little further.

As their music continues to reach lovers of soul and today’s modern R&B, Emotional Oranges are holding on to the elements that actually matter. From storytelling, funky beats and universal perspectives, they have a gift of making it all work. “I think we haven't pigeon-holed ourselves, or put ourselves in a box,” V ironically says as she toys with an orange from our snack area. “I think we kind of live outside the box. We can really play, which I think is fun since where we go from here is up to us.”

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Emma McIntyre

Anderson .Paak Talks Homelessness, Modelo Partnership And ‘Oxnard’ Criticism

Any fan of Anderson .Paak knows that despite revered, Grammy-nominated albums like his breakout 2016 album Malibu and his 2019 LP Ventura, you haven’t truly experienced his music until you’ve seen him live. When he’s performing with his band the Free Nationals, he’s truly in his element: his vocals are electric, he easily transitions from belting on the microphone at front stage to delivering drum solos in the back, and you can see his wide, toothy smile from anywhere in the audience. And whenever the Oxnard, Calif. native takes the stage, he never forgets the life circumstances he’s escaped and survived.

Over the next week, the multitalented musician is teaming with Modelo and the International Rescue Committee for their Fighting Chance concert series. .Paak will perform in three benefit shows in San Francisco (Nov. 13), Atlanta (Nov. 15), and Brooklyn (Nov. 17) to aid refugees, immigrants, and people in need – all issues that the singer/rapper has personal connection with. VIBE spoke to Anderson .Paak about homelessness, music’s greatest beggars, criticism of his album Oxnard, and new music with Chance The Rapper and the Free Nationals.

VIBE: Tell me about this new partnership with Modelo.

Anderson .Paak: Really excited to be partnering with Modelo and International Rescue Committee. Modelo and the IRC are providing a fighting chance for immigrants, for refugees and Americans, so they can be great out here when it comes to all over the world. I’m happy to be linking up with them because I share a similar story. There was a time when I didn’t have much and I didn’t have a place to stay, and all I wanted to do was the music but I didn’t have the resources. A lot of people lended a hand so that I could have that bridge, and I see Modelo is trying to do the same. So I’m hyped about what we’re doing with these benefit shows – one in Brooklyn, one in Atlanta, one in San Francisco – for the cause.

 

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Everyone deserves a fighting chance. Learn how you can help @ModeloUSA, @iheartradio, @RESCUEorg in supporting refugees, immigrants and Americans in need. Visit ModeloUSA.com/fightingchanceconcert for more. #ModeloFightingChance #Ad #For21+

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What’s the backstory behind when you were homeless?

Right when my wife was pregnant with my first son, Soul, I was doing cover gigs, gigs here and there, playing for other artists. I was working on weed farms and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Right when that happened, I wanted to fully commit to the music thing. But at the same time, that’s when I moved out of my sister’s spot, she couldn’t afford to have us there anymore. It was a key time where I was floating around, didn’t have a spot to stay. We were finishing up the first project, and I was working with people like Sa-Ra, really working closely with my boy Shafiq Husayn, and working closely with my boy Dumbfoundead. These are people who offered up their couches, their studios, their places to me and my family while I got things together. It was vital, it helped me get to the next phase of my career. If I didn’t have that, I probably would’ve devoted my energy to making ends meet, and Lord knows what kind of things you can get into when you’re trying to make money. But I got to focus on my passion, and everything followed after that.

Sitting down with Modelo, I got to talk to some of the people they’re working with. Hearing their stories, I saw that common thread and I related to that. Even for someone coming from Mexico, someone coming from Africa, I could see people being out there and not having resources. To have any sort of help is important and makes a difference.

Many people reading this may not have dealt with homelessness personally. What do you think is something about homelessness that people can’t truly understand until they’ve been there?

Not everybody starts off homeless. You eventually get to that place. Someone may have a passion. One thing leads to another, he doesn’t have the resources, and he doesn’t have someone to help him get out of that hole. Anything can happen. People get removed and they get numb to the fact and forget that so easily that could be them. Or if they want to start something in a whole different territory, but they don’t have any family out there or nothing. A lot of people can relate to that. I think people being numb to that is where the problem is. They think they can’t relate because they see someone who’s literally homeless in the street. But it’s getting away from that. It’s being able to connect with that person and knowing that if you have something to offer, then there’s no reason not to offer that up because you get what you give. They’re at that point of homelessness, and that’s when people go towards acts of crime to help feed themselves. It doesn’t have to get to that point.

Has growing up in California given more perspective when it comes to immigrants?

Absolutely. It’s a part of my whole story, even going back from my mom being from Korea, adopted by black Americans who were out here in the ‘50s. She had no clue of her original family. She starts her own produce business, which is built on immigrants, Mexican workers who are going out there and making millions for companies that have to have their produce all the time. That’s what I came up on. That’s my moms. Then meeting my wife, she comes out here and she wants to be a musician, so she has to get residency permits and she comes out here with no family, she meets me and we start a family. That brings me back to my culture that I never knew. So it’s incredible, very near and dear.

 

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On Ventura, the song “Come Home,” you said, “no one even begs anymore.” Who are the all-time greatest beggars in music?

Oooh, the all-time greatest beggars. You’ve got Lenny Williams. “Oooh, oh oh oh oh.” K-Ci and JoJo? “Baby I want you back.” You’ve got groups: Boyz II Men, The Delfonics, The Temptations, Dru Hill. Even Bruno, he gets in his begging bag, catching grenades for girls and stuff. He’s probably the biggest one, he topped the charts with that one. (laughs)

I was thinking of Keith Sweat. He be begging, man.

(imitates Keith Sweat singing “Twisted”) “Baby baby, I know!”

If you had to make a Mount Rushmore of R&B and soul singers, who would be on it?

I’d do Stevie Wonder, I’d do Ray Charles. I’d do Prince. I’d do Aretha Franklin. Sh*t! It’s just four? (revisits the list) Yeah, everybody’s represented.

You had a really strong start with your first several albums. Malibu, Venice, NxWorries. Oxnard wasn’t as well received by critics. Did that criticism impact you while making Ventura?

Says who?! Nah, it was good. It was part of the grand scheme of things. People have their expectations that I would never be able to reach after Malibu, and it’s a blessing to be able to say that. I never thought Malibu would be received the way it was. It took us all around the world, it changed our lives. Going into the next project was rough because like, we’re touring now, I’m always making music but I’m making the music I want to do and I’m not necessarily trying to let the fans dictate where I go. As an artist, I have to figure out how I’m going to take them with me; that was the point of the beaches thing. But these different things were happening in my life at the same time as Oxnard. I never was thinking about first week sales or being on Billboard; all these things were kind of new. This was my first debut with Dre where all these things were becoming factors now. I thought it was great. It gave me something else to achieve. But I knew it was going to be this kind of thing where, “he’ll never be able to live up to (the previous album),” I could feel that energy. So I was like, I’m going to make sure I have two albums ready because Kanye and all these dudes have their big album and everyone wants to put them in this box. At that point, as an artist, there’s a big thing you have to do where you go against the grain. F**k em. Some people just fall in and see what they’re good at, and repeat it. Some people can do that, but I’m not really like that. I like to do different things.

I did two albums: I’m going to have Oxnard, that’s what I wanted to do. I’m the same man, new car, having fun, action-packed. I’m really working with Dre, not just talking; Dre’s involved in everything from the production to the mix to the art. I’m going to have another album that I feel like is a mix of where I should be going and what people want from me. If I have to do something in the parameter of making it beautiful and something I can play with the Obamas, my mom, with the hood people, and the nerd people, I’m going to have it ready to go, but I want to be able to do these at the same time. That didn’t become clear to me until I was making Oxnard and working so closely with Dre. I need to have this ready as well, and it’s going to be a perfect balance.

I also wasn’t used to taking criticism, really. You put out stuff, and people love everything you put out. Then you try to do something different. People were taking jabs at it. Like, wow. But at the same time, it was my biggest Billboard charting joint. (Ed. note: Oxnard debuted at no. 11 on the Billboard 200, his highest at that time of his career; his follow-up, Ventura, debuted at no. 10.) My biggest first week ever. You can’t have one without the other, I realized. That was a big learning experience, too. If they hate, let them hate and let the money pile up, like 50 Cent said.

I actually enjoyed Oxnard, but I still had that question.

It’s crazy how a handful of people can skew an artist. Artists are so close to their fan base now than ever before. There’s pros and cons with that. If people don’t like it, that makes artists feel like it’s complete trash. A lot of people still f**k with it, and some people don’t. That was my first album where I had that energy, where people felt so passionate on either side. That’s striking a nerve.

You were recently on Rhythm + Flow with Chance The Rapper. What was that experience like? Also, I read that you guys were working on other records aside from the show. When can we hear those records?

Rhythm + Flow was fun, to be in front of hungry musicians and young artists. I always love doing that. They were taking advice, they were all really respectful, and it made me appreciative that I can have a career like this where people even see me as worthy of giving advice. Chance, we got a lot of records, but he’s obsessed with video games and stuff. I hope he puts some of that stuff out sometime. But if he keeps inviting me to Netflix, I’m there, too. I’m still pissed I didn’t get to meet Cardi that day. It was fun experiencing that with the new kids out there.

You said that hopefully Chance can put out that music you guys made. Why can’t you?

He better! But I’ve got enough problems. I’m putting out the Free Nationals [album]. They’re a pain in the a**, but they’ve got some great music. You would never think individuals as rowdy as them would put out such sophisticated music, but that’s the beauty of it, it’s a contrast. We’re gearing up for that

What’s the story behind the Free Nationals?

They’ve been my band since day one. The core of it was me, Jose Rios, and Ron Tnava Avant. We used to play cover gigs, then they started playing my original music, and the band started to grow from there with Kelsey Gonzalez, Callum Connor. They’ve been part of my production since Venice, since before that. Now they’ve ventured off and wrote their own album together, and some great artists have been involved with it: Syd, my brother Mac Miller, Kadhja Bonet, they dropped a single with J.I.D. It’s dope man, they’re finally done with the project so I’m excited to be able to help with it.

How did you figure out who you wanted in the band and settle upon a group you were happy with?

There was a time where all of us were just coming up and playing together. Before we were doing big shows we just liked to be around each other, link up and play. No one had to tell us to link, we just would do it all the time. That’s how you kind of know. Years go by, and it’s just the same dudes. There were times where [multiple members would say], “we’re going to kick this [member] out, we hate him.” It never happened, we just stuck with each other. Those are your bros. We meet a lot of bands that we admire, like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Earth Wind and Fire, and these bands are still playing and really doing it. They still talk to each other. You meet them backstage, and everybody seems to be chill. That’s a beautiful thing to have in your career. There aren’t many bands anymore. Not many bands that are playing instruments, everybody pushes bands to the back. So it’s dope to be a part of this wave that’s pushing toward people with instruments and being a band.

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Skyzoo And Von Pea On Brooklyn Gentrification, Modern New York Hip-Hop And Artistic Integrity

Initially using rap’s blog era to make a mark, for over a decade Skyzoo and Von Pea have taken different approaches to the same concept - lyrically deft music that pushes the creative envelope while simultaneously landing well with trained ears.

Commonly recognized for the dual role of rapper/producer in the whimsical group Tanya Morgan, most of Von’s core following stems from 2009’s Brooklynati - a concept LP centered around a fictional city merging the influences of TM’s New York and Ohio members. A decade later, his latest solo LP City For Sale focuses on the true to life socioeconomic devastation caused by gentrification in his actual hometown of Bed-Stuy.

A kindred spirit of sorts, Skyzoo is heralded as a multilayered thinking man’s emcee who is street smart yet sophisticated, bleeding Brooklyn culture through songs like “Spike Lee Was My Hero” and never hiding his affinity for jazz. Blessed with the good fortune of working with production titan Pete Rock for a whole album in the same vein as Gang Starr, Retropolitan captures the essence of coming up over the past three decades in New York’s five boroughs. Contrasted with City For Sale’s narratives about how systemic change affects neighborhood residents, both artists present themselves as pillars and modern upgrades to what their golden age predecessors achieved.

Two sides of the same coin, Skyzoo and Von Pea displayed a mutual respect and camaraderie on a conference call with VIBE, as they waxed poetic on where they’ve been in and outside of music, the keys to maintaining consistency over the years and what it takes for underdogs to get their just due on the heels of 2020.

VIBE: Your latest albums City For Sale and Retropolitan are acclaimed companion pieces with seemingly similar aims. How does it feel to lead the charge in a sense for keeping traditionalism alive?

Skyzoo: For me, whether New York was the way it is now or how it was 15 years ago, my music would sound the same. I probably speak for Von as well knowing the type of artist and individual that he is. When I made Retropolitan, it wasn’t about saving New York rap. It was about making music that reflects who I am and who Pete Rock is from a production standpoint. I did what came naturally, rapping about the changes going on in my world. If the idea of us leading the charge comes with it, then so be it.

Von Pea: We spoke before both albums came out, and Sky was telling me how what was happening with the Slave Theater [as shown on my album cover] was an early idea that sparked Retropolitan. We’re both from Bed-Stuy and around the same age, so we’ll talk about the same thing in our music from different perspectives. What’s happening in Brooklyn [with gentrification] is happening in so many other cities, but us being from Brooklyn is [reflected] in the music. We’re not trying to pretend it’s still ‘94, it is 2019 but our music comes from who we are and everything we’ve gone through from day one.

Being from Harlem, I know how I’ve felt about gentrification, but growing up I didn’t experience the same blocks as Brooklyn natives. What are your memories of your area when you were growing up and how did it feel to see the changes happening around you?

Skyzoo: It’s funny you said you’re from Harlem, me being from Brooklyn I feel just as bad for Harlem and I ain't even from there. Harlem was ours even before we were in Brooklyn. When you were down South, you just wanted to get to Harlem and make something of yourself. To see that happen there is a slap to my blackness. It’s like how much of this sh*t you gonna take from us?

Brooklyn was one of the first places to get hit by gentrification on a wide scale, and it started with proximity. Manhattan was too expensive and overcrowded, so people figured “Williamsburg is right there, we can get on the L train for one stop and be in Manhattan in 3 minutes.” Then Williamsburg gets overcrowded and expensive, so let’s push it back to Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene. Then the Barclays Center is built and you can’t just have a billion dollar stadium in the middle of the hood. You gotta build bars and cafes around it and now you’re kicking grandmothers out and people trying to make it to the next day.

People will be walking their dogs and if I’m walking my dog and nod, they don’t acknowledge me because in their mind they’re like “You’re not gonna be here in three or four years anyway, we’re gonna own this.” We can enjoy this together, don’t look at me like I don’t belong, because if we had to take a test on who belongs more, I’m gonna ace that (laughs).

Von: I remember looking at reviews from people moving in and they would flat out describe the neighborhood saying “It’s sketchy, but we’re waiting it out.” That planted the first seed for City For Sale, it was the first time I thought of the concept of somebody coming for my neighborhood and it no longer being for me.

Skyzoo: You can enjoy the neighborhood despite your nationality, background and tax bracket. It’s not about keeping people away, but when we wanted the garbage picked up or for police to show up, we couldn’t get it. So now that all of that has changed and the neighborhood is pristine, if we had to thug it out when it was pouring rain, we should be able to enjoy it when the sun is out.

City For Sale by Von Pea VIBE: You’re both ambitious artists who use narratives in your music. How did you come up with the concepts for these albums, and what were the exact statements you were looking to make?

Von: Going back to New York and thinking about Jay-Z, no matter what you think about The Blueprint, The Black Album or 4:44, he’s gonna let you know Reasonable Doubt is his masterpiece. I would never say I was trying to make my masterpiece, but I was trying to make that album that was the one for me. My group Tanya Morgan has Brooklynati and on the last song I said that for the past 40 minutes I was trying to beat that album and make a solo version of that for myself. I wanted to make a record about my city for today, people like Skyzoo and Torae never tried to bring New York back, they talked about where they were from presently, so I thought about what Sumner Projects and Myrtle Avenue were like today.

Skyzoo: Working with Pete and knowing what I was getting into, he’s one of the greatest of all time and I didn’t just get one joint, it’s like 11 or 12. Think of all of the people who have done all of these wonderful things in the game that don’t have a whole album with him, being on that shortlist was serious. The only pressure on myself is to beat what I’ve done before, knowing what he brings and what I wanted to do to match that. Like Von said, it was never about bringing New York back. It was just about making music that represented me. I always respected how the South never tried to sound like New York or LA when nobody was thinking about them. Master P, T.I. and Pastor Troy represented who they are and never tried to be us. As much as they respected us, they never tried to make a Wu-Tang joint.

Von: You gotta be yourself. You can’t tell somebody else’s story and sound authentic.

VIBE: Along with gentrification and other changes in the city, some would argue New York lost its musical identity. If you can identify with that feeling, how do you think that came to pass?

Von: I would disagree. Maybe you could say that was the case for a little while, but a record like “All The Way Up” [by Fat Joe & Remy Ma] sounds like a New York club record today. French Montana’s music has trap elements but to me they sound like current New York club records. You can get traditional sounds from people like us and the city’s current sound comes from things like transplants and the internet. You look at A$AP Rocky’s generation, they don’t just sound like Dipset, they sound like they were listening to Scarface.

Skyzoo: I think that’s a dope point. As large as the internet is, it made the world smaller. No matter where you are, everybody has access to the same things at the same time. While I agree with Von, I think on top of that New York has always been the home of the hustle. Whatever is winning, New York is gonna do it because we’re about that paper. If heads is wearing white tees down to their knees, we’re doing that, and if we’re scamming and swiping cards we’re doing that too. Being the home of the hustle is a pro and a con, because musically all these little kids in their early 20s see what’s winning and run after whatever is gonna get the paper, and the identity gets lost in that.

VIBE: The three of us have similar stories, growing up in the hood but never letting it define our limitations. This idea tends to come up in your music often, what gave you focus to see that there was more to the world?

Von: It really was just rap. I had an older cousin who was pursuing a rap career. We would drive around in his car listening to whatever was popular whether it was [Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s] Mecca & The Soul Brother, The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass or LL Cool J. He was trying to be a rapper and I had only seen rappers on TV. I was never into comics but Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and KRS-One were my Superman and Batman growing up. Then I discovered Tribe and De La Soul and my best friend growing up put me onto Death Row, and I realized all of these people were from the hood like me.

Skyzoo: For me, it definitely was Hip-Hop but the difference was having my pops. I grew up with both of my parents my whole life, even though they never were in the same house. I spoke to my pops every day even if I was staying at my mom’s crib. When I eventually moved in with him, I would come from hanging out in the hood and we would have Leroy Campbell paintings on the wall and he was listening to artists like Ronnie Jordan, Anita Baker and Sade. It taught me how to be comfortable in both types of surroundings.

Retropolitan by Skyzoo & Pete Rock VIBE: You’re both pretty prolific, dropping quality music almost annually whether free or for sale. What would you say has been the key to your consistency over the years?

Von Pea: For me it’s being a fan and competitive. I could be listening to Sky’s latest record, Drake or a dude I just heard of yesterday, but if somebody is spitting that sh*t I’ll be like “That was ill, why didn’t I think of that? You hear that flow? This beat is ill, I should have flipped that sample.” Then I’ll turn on the drum machine, fire up the Notes app and write some sh*t. I’m a huge fan, but I have to remember I’m one of these people and I have to keep up too.

Skyzoo: Same for me. If you’re doing anything creative, the day you’re not a fan anymore is the day you lose because you gotta know what’s going on out there in order to compete and coexist. I always want to one up myself creatively, while knowing the business end and what it takes to stay out here. You can’t drop every five years unless you’re Jay, Beyonce or Nas, that’s the era we’re in. I don’t believe in dropping 30 mixtapes a year, but one a year will keep me on tour, selling records and merch, and collecting feature money because the new record is out. You have to keep the fans locked in without them forgetting. If you’re gonna be in this, you gotta actively work.

VIBE: What is it like to take the road less traveled at a time where it can feel like there’s a limited audience hanging onto the type of music you make?

Von: I met Skyzoo at the Little Brother “Lovin’ It’” video shoot in 2005 and in all of that time, you see people try to get signed only to sit. People who were dope as f**k being themselves would be like “I got the Lil Jon-sounding record because Im trying to put my album out.” Even sadder is seeing someone become totally different because they’re trying to get on...I say it’s integrity on my part. A label will want to sign you only for you to sound like another person on that label and I never understood that, so I’m just gonna do me. If I could make a hit record being myself I would do that.

Skyzoo: Like Von said it’s about integrity, where I’m able to look in the mirror and be happy with the music I made. You never want to have moments where you’re like “I can’t believe I made that type of record.” There was never a moment when I dumbed down, for me it was like how can I do what’s working, while doing me at the same time and making it make sense.

Von: Fat Joe tells this story where KRS-One said “No one is shooting at my shows because I don’t talk about that.” We see what’s going on with [Tekashi 6ix9ine] in court, you talk up certain things and people are gonna approach you [with that same energy.] So I keep it true to who I am and what I’m doing.

VIBE: I know gentrification, fixing New York’s infrastructure or even the state of Hip-Hop are issues that are too big for any of us to tackle, but what’s the role you want to take on with your music?

Von: It’s part selfish, but as I’m trying to figure out what I want to say and do next, I just want to continue to have the respect of my peers and for people to say “Von is dope” or “Tanya Morgan dropped another classic record.” I don’t know if that’s vanity (laughs), I just want to be acknowledged for being dope and anything else is a nice perk.

Skyzoo: I want people to relate to the music, see themselves in it and leave a legacy. We’re always celebrating 15, 20 and 25 year anniversaries of incredible albums and I want my music to be looked at like that. We do that with Marvin Gaye, Stevie, James Brown, Michael Jackson and all of the music that shaped this country and world. I want my music to be represented like that as something that lasts, having the same impact as Illmatic, Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Midnight Marauders, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and sh*t that I listen to like it dropped yesterday.

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