Vinyl Me Please
VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

In A Digital World, Vinyl Me, Please Is Reviving The Lost Art Of The Record Collection

VIBE spoke to the guys behind Vinyl, Me Please to discuss their grassroots success and why they are the "Best Damn Record Club Out There."

There are many traits we get from our parents. Their eye color, their wit, the charming dimple planted on the side of their cheek that instantly makes their smile feel warmer. But aside from genes, if there's one gift we'd all be obliged to put respeck (word to Birdman) on, it's certainly music — the harmonious vocal and instrumental combination that evokes the most beautiful form of self-expression.

For many, their musical taste is a direct reflection of their parents. And for those old enough to remember, it all started with vinyls, the grandfather of CDs, and a record player. However, that was then and this is now. The times of carefully grasping the sides of the record with steady fingertips, operating the tonearm and needle with the sharpest precision, and slipping into a state of musical bliss without the option of fast forward has faded into history books territory. Nevertheless, the lost art is having a undeniable resurgence. From the lifestyle section of your local Urban Outfitters to your favorite artists' merchandise store, the growing demand for vinyls is being delivered at a fascinating rate. Another exciting presence in the market being Vinyl, Me Please, an independent record club that delivers record junkies the nostalgic dose of polyvinyl chloride they've been waiting for.

"Growing up during the Napster generation, if you will, I’ve always longed for a tangible connection to something. So, Vinyl really fosters that experience better than anything," says Vinyl, Me Please founder Matt Fielder. But instead of choosing what you'd like to spin on your turntables, the musically-inclined staff chooses an exclusive vinyl each month to send its customers, giving each the thumbs up as an essential to any record collection.

VIBE spoke to the guys behind Vinyl, Me Please to discuss their grassroots success, the importance of bringing vinyl back to the forefront, and why exactly they are the "Best Damn Record Club Out There."

So, of all things, why vinyl?
Matt Fiedler: The reason we started Vinyl Me, Please was to create an experience around music. Our mission is to help people explore, experience, and enjoy music on a deeper level, using vinyl as the medium. There's a nostalgic tangible nature that has a forced intentionality around it that actually makes for the best listening experience. It’s a unique discovery experience, too, because you’re not being served up something by an outlet or being able to click around and all that stuff. You have to sit with it and be with it and get through it.

Do you remember your first experience with vinyl? 
Matt: My dad amassed this huge record collection, and ironically enough, he bought one of the first commercially available CD burners. It's the pre-industrial looking recording equipment where you mount it into the wall. He used to have me take records by one and burn them onto CDs and then put them onto the computer so he could listen to them on his iPod. He'd pay me a dollar a record or something like that. You couldn’t fast-forward, so I would have to sit and listen to all of these records to ensure that the sound was transferring properly. So that was my first interaction with vinyl, and weirdly it was at a pretty young age. So when I came back around, I was already pretty familiar with the components and how it all works.
Severan Johnson: I had an older buddy in the neighborhood who was three years older than me, and I stole his Too Live Crew, As Nasty As You Want To Be. I hid in my closet and put it on my first cassette player when I was 12. I never heard anything like it. My dad had a turntable and every Sunday he cooked waffles in his underwear with music blasting. Now that I think of it is was really weird [laughs]. But I got his turntable and I tried to scratch because I heard all these cool sounds. It was this nice turntable, too. I ended up getting an a** whooping man. It wasn’t scratching turntables either. So yeah, my introduction to vinyl, trying to scratch Too Live Crew and getting an a** whooping.

Lots of times, when people look back at their favorite albums, if they really think about when they first connected with it, it’s often not the album that they would’ve picked. —Cameron Schaefer

How did you guys formulate your idea of an updated vinyl experience into a thriving business?
Matt: It all started when Tyler, my co-founder and then roommate, really wanted to get into vinyl after my dad gifted me turntables for Christmas. There were tons of records that we loved and wanted to own, but me personally, I have severe purchasing anxiety. When I walk into a record store I want them all and can never pick one.  So we thought it would be cool to create a record club that was for the new generation. We decided to focus on one album each month: something that's sort of a diamond in the rough, something that flows from start to finish, and something that's really great and probably undiscovered, that everyone will get it, and then build from there. We didn’t take any funding or financing. It was literally something we put up on Facebook, saying, 'Hey we’re going to try this and if you’re interested, put in your email address and we’ll let you know when we’re ready to launch.' In January 2013, we launched with just twelve members in our first month. Our main focus was creating product that was cool and exciting enough for those people to tell their friends. By the end of that first year, we grew to about 300 members. However, the whole concept shifted soon after doing one-on-one consulting. What we realized is that we were calling people and saying, 'What do you want to listen to? What do you want on this playlist? What should we curate for you?' And they were like 'I trust your taste, so just give me something that you think I should be listening or what you’re listening to or something new cool.' That was a light bulb moment for us because we were realized we could be curators and tastemakers.

What's the process of picking the record of the month like?
Cameron Schaefer: I lead that process. Ultimately, every single record is a team decision that we all listen to multiple times and debate vigorously until we decide.
Severan: Sometimes blood is shed [laughs].
Cameron: Yeah, but we first approach it by dividing up the calendar year and just saying we know we want four to five major reissues; three, maybe four new releases from smaller artists to have that element of discovery. Then, we fill the rest with what I like to call undiscovered gems – albums that maybe came out a few years ago and were great, but for whatever reason, we feel like didn’t get the attention they deserved. After I identify a few potential albums that could be our featured record, then I’ll bring it the team. We’ll all listen normally three or four times, each album. We kind of have development over time, our internal score card, the different elements that we kind of judge to think that this would be a great release for our members: a coherent narrative and something that was intentionally put together to tell a story and isn’t just some singles that’s sporadically thrown in with some filler. And above all else it has to be a great album from start to finish. So, everyone gives the records intentional listens and scores them. We’ll put it all together and see where things line up. Generally, we get down to two albums and then the debate begins, which is a lot of fun.

Would Metro Boomin’ trust would your scorecards?
Severan: I hope. I would love to do something with Metro Boomin’ [laughs]. But like Matt said earlier, we're all about the music at the end of the day. So I think there’s a level of respect in the industry when people see that and in return they trust us.

The idea of a vinyl club is nothing novel, so what separates Vinyl Me, Please from others in the market place? 
Matt: What separates us is our core values as a company, which are humanity, humility, and authenticity. We’re real people and real music fans, and we’re incredibly passionate about what we do. It starts with the music and ends with music. It’s not about being the cool startup or any of that other bullsh*t, which is very obvious in our product. The curation element is key because most of the industry has tried to move into a space where they look at your tastes and try to give you recommendations based on data, whether that’s what you’ve been listening to on Spotify or what you like on Facebook. We're different. It's not that we ignore those things; we’re totally aware of them. But we recognize that there’s lots of great music discovery that happens through serendipity and a bit of randomness.
Cameron: Lots of times, when people look back at their favorite albums, if they really think about when they first connected with it, it’s often not the album that they would’ve picked.

via member @laneydfisher #vinylme #torres #vinyl #newmusic

A photo posted by Vinyl Me, Please (@vinylmeplease) on

There's also the really cool element of artist involvement in your membership, too. 
Matt: Yeah, it’s always better for us if the artist can be involved in the creative process around creating the package. It just feels way more personal and way better because it feels like it’s coming from the artist rather than just us and the label putting our heads together. We like for them to be involved in many ways whether we want to look at maybe changing up the album artwork. Or do we want to do a new lyric booklet and have them write a foreword or a personal note to members.
Cameron: Before I started working with Vinyl, Me Please, I was actually a pilot in the Air Force. On the side I had a music blog that I was writing with a friend they got wind of. Originally it was called Vinyl and Cocktails; we would just listen to albums, make a drink, and then write about it for fun. Matt and Tyler came to me saying they'd love to have a cocktail pairing component to the monthly package that compliments and the listening experience. So, that's also another major feature we offer our customers.

You guys are based out of Colorado. What's the appeal of the city since it's not really a music hub per se?
Matt: The day before my wife and I were to get married, I got a job offer in Colorado. At that point, Vinyl Me, Please was pretty small at that point, so we took this job and sort of just moved the fulfillment to our apartment in Colorado. We weren’t like that’s where we build this business. It just all came together for us in the same way we talk about the serendipitous music discovery, it was a serendipitous experience for us.
Severan: There was actually a discussion of whether we should be in Los Angeles or New York. We actually found a lot of benefit by staying in Colorado because we were separated from the scenes. We're outside of the vortex, so much to the point that we don't get caught up in the hype.
Matt: Right. It's like having a pretty unbiased opinion because we’re not being forced in a certain direction by anybody. So you know, I think it’s something that’s special and we’ve always been very cognizant of preserving so even when we hire people, it’s like this is what we’re hear for and this is what we’re about, do you fit into that kind of culture and that mantra.

Are there any future plans for expansion?
Matt: For us it all comes down to iterating the membership, iterating the features of the membership, and making it better to be a member. We just introduced a new feature called Swaps, which for three, six, or 12-month members you have the ability to swap a featured record for something else. So if there’s a title that you’re really not interested in or you already have a copy, or issue it gives flexibility to the member and encourages that we're not being a**holes just telling you, you need to take this record. Our member store is growing tremendously, too, so we’re continuing to focus on that by adding more titles. We’ve somewhat recently started doing limited edition of 750 to 1,000 copy runs of other records. So there's unique, limited edition records like Young Thug's Barter 6 and Future's DS2 that we put in the store that are exclusive to members only.

Lastly, what are you guys' top three albums of the year so far?
Severan: Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool and Car Seat Headrest's Teens Of Denial. Young Thug's Slime Season 3 was f***ing brilliant, too.
Cameron: I would say the new Car Seat Headrest as well. I really like the new Marissa Nadler album, Strangers. And then I would probably say Parquet Courts' Human Experiences.
Matt: I love the new Sturgill Simpson record. Anderson .Paak’s Malibu is amazing. We saw him at South By South West and was mind blown. Kendrick Lamar's, untitled, unmastered, I really dig that too.

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Bail Reform, Civil Rights, And Why Hip-Hop Journalists Need To Get Involved

The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.

As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.

In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.

Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.

For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court. 

As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.

“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons. 

“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”

Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers. 

With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing--and that’s just a few examples.

“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”

As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences. 

It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.

“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

 

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Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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