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VIVA Chat: Cierra Ramirez On Music Debut, Gun Culture & The Millennial Latina

"I’m representing for a certain kind of Latina."

For Latinas, the path to Hollywood is a winding road. One that more often than not leads to being compartmentalized, or pigeonholed. This rings true for the music industry as well. Yet, like the legendary icons who walked before her – late Queen of Tejano music, Selena and pop empress, Jennifer Lopez – Houston’s own Cierra Ramirez intends to break the proverbial glass ceiling and make her own mark among greatness.

After gaining prominence with recurring roles on Disney Channel and Freeform shows, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and The Secret Life of an American Teenager—along with winning an ALMA Award for her role in 2012’s Girl In Progress, she eventually landed on the drama series, The Fosters. The show now is gearing up for its fourth season on Freeform.

Picking up where she left off in her music trajectory, she'll soon be releasing her debut EP Discreet on June 20, featuring her Casey Veggies and Honey C-assisted radio hit, "Faded."  The six-track project, also feature Ty Dolla $ign and social media sensation Dylan Holland, is available for pre-order now.

Ramirez, who was also recently nominated for a Teen Choice Award for Summer TV Actress, has crafted a promising body of work that reflects her upbeat personality, as well as her history of opening up for legendary acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, Ruben Studdard, and Ace Young. Sonically, it's tailored for the summertime and has a lot of potential playback joints. Discreet, however, is only the preface of what's to come next—her upcoming, untitled LP, which she promises delves deeper.

The project is a joint venture between Tribeca Music Group and music industry veteran Ghazi Shami of EMPIRE Records/Distribution. He gives his blessings on the solid EP saying, "We're excited to partner with Tribeca Music on Cierra's debut EP.  She's built a tremendous brand as a successful actress and EMPIRE is excited to help her to do the same as a recording artist. Cierra is super-talented and exactly the kind of mainstream artist that we can help take all the way."

VIBE VIVA caught up with Ramirez, where she opened up about music, being Latina in Hollywood, the current political landscape, and the tragic death of Christina Grimmie.

VIBE VIVA: You’ve done Showtime at the Apollo when you were 10 in 2005. What was that experience like for you?
Cierra: 
It was amazing! I grew up in Houston, TX and I had grew up seeing lots of competitions in my hometown and I always had loved performing on stage, but I mean this was the Apollo, it was a huge dream come true and a fun opportunity where I got to meet [veteran TV, music, and film producer] Suzanne De Passe who brought me on [The Fosters]. I mean, to this day, that’s probably my most favorite thing I’ve ever done. It was amazing and it was a dream come true.

Were you nervous?
Oh, definitely. I had to rub that good luck tree. [Laughs] Oh yeah, I was really nervous and I remember they filmed a couple of episodes during the day and they were telling [the crowd] not do the kid and I was like, 'Oh my God, wait that’s even a thing? That they have to remind them not to boo the kid!' [Laughs] It was scary, it was intimidating, but once I was up there, I loved it.

Considering your musical background and history, what made you want to transition from television back into music?
Well, music has always been my first love. It’s actually how I got into acting. Like I said, I grew up going to all the competitions in Texas and I ended up getting into a competition here in L.A. that had acting and I’ve never done any musical theatre, or any theatre for that matter, or even thought about acting but I just always loved to perform. [I said to myself] I’m out here, I might as well just try it. So I got my agent and I’ve been with him ever since I was 10-years old, so it’s really been a fun experience and music has always been there. But I wanted to pursue it really young. I think I’m finally at the age where I think I’m ready, so I think it’s all happening at the right time.

They love my spirit like Pac at the Coachella🌵?

A photo posted by Miss Thang (@cierraramirez) on

What makes you ready to pursue it all the way?
Producers would always try to take me down the bubblegum route [but] that was never really me. I grew up listening to really soulful music and growing up in Texas, I liked country music. I always have gravitated to that older sound and I already look so young, people think I’m 15 just because I play 15 on TV, I’m 21. I’m at a good age where I can sing what I want to sing about.

What artists have inspired your style?
I have to thank my dad for the music taste I have, he introduced me to many things. I grew up listening to Patsy Cline and Etta James. I love soul! This EP in particular, I love kind of taking on an idea of—because I’ve been acting, as different as they are, I thought it would be really fun to explore it how, even though they’re different, I think that they’re similar in a sense that you get to play a character and it’s been kind of fun to have these sounds these different sounds in music so I’ve been really trying to explore and finding that sound.

And Selena?
Oh yes! Well actually it’s so funny because, she grew up in Houston and so [did] I, and I would go to this local place that she grew up singing at. I look up to her and I would look up to artists like Jennifer Lopez, because you know you got to represent. I love that they’ve been able to open the doors for girls like me and of course [they're] an inspiration.

Do you think that some fans of the show will find it difficult to embrace you as an artist if they’re not familiar with your prior work?
I hope that they can. The beauty of what just happened this past season was one of the creators and the executive producers of the show was directing the first episode and she’s gotten herself more into the musical theatre world and he wanted to collide them two. So with the first episode he directed on The Fosters, he did a musical episode and it was a Romeo and Juliet musical and I was Juliet. So fans of the show, if they didn’t know or weren’t aware that I sang, they are now, which is pretty cool.

*insert black nail polish emoji* 💅🏽

A photo posted by Miss Thang (@cierraramirez) on

You have a solid EP, but there's a sense of generality. If that makes sense… Do you plan on releasing something more personal?
The second that this drops, I’m ready to work on a follow up LP. I really want to get personal and this is a fun experience, like I said I’m kind of making a splash, I’m making some noise for myself and it’s been really fun, but I’m really ready to get into the follow up LP.

Based on your experience in Hollywood, or even in the music business, is it harder to make it as a Latina without trying to alter your Mexican identity?
I definitely think that. Especially with the acting. I’ve heard every excuse under the sun that I’m “not Latin enough” or I’m “too Latin” and it’s important to erase those barriers. I always love looking for roles that aren’t so stereotypical and it’s hard because of the way Latinxs are represented on TV, it’s very difficult to break out of that.

Like I said, people like Jennifer Lopez, Selena, and many others have opened doors. You know, one thing I do regret about myself is that I don’t speak Spanish. But I think that there are many people with my background like me who don’t. I guess it’s not too late to learn, but I know I’d like to represent for that because even though I am Latina and people have this stigma towards the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, I’m representing for a certain kind of Latina as well.

I have friends who are Puerto Rican and Mexican, from two different states, who say that people who don’t speak Spanish aren’t accepted as easily. Have you ever faced any blowback from your community for not speaking Spanish on a personal level?
Just recently, someone has told me that. They were Latin and that’s the funny part about it. But, I grew up in Houston and moved to a school where no one spoke Spanish around me really. I didn’t grow up learning how to write it. My parents, even though they knew it as a first language really didn’t speak it a lot around the house so I don’t know. Like I said, I regret it. I wish I knew another language, because that would open so many more doors and it would be amazing, but I haven’t gotten a lot of blowback if that answers your question. It hasn’t happened very often.

Excuse me, is you sayin somethin?

A photo posted by Miss Thang (@cierraramirez) on

Coming up, what was the diversity in Houston like?
The thing about Houston is that it’s one of the most diverse cities in America. My mom, who was a kindergarten teacher, taught English as a second language. And she had folks from Dubai and Japan. There were so many backgrounds around me at school.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump for a minute. How does his views on immigration make you feel as a woman of color?
Ughhhh! I don’t like the guy. I think he talks without thinking and he’s talking down on a group of people who make up the majority of the people that vote, it’s just—I don’t know what he’s thinking. It’s crazy to me that we live in the world where Donald Trump… I remember thinking how he was going to try to be president and I was thinking 'Oh that’s a joke,' but here we are. And that’s the scary part. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping he doesn’t win.

What’s your thought on the tragic death of Christina Grimmie and guns in America?
Wow. I’m completely heartbroken for her family and fans. To think that we live in a world where access to guns is so easy that people in a bad mental state can cause so much pain and harm is crazy to me. Of course it concerns me. Especially when it's occurring every day. Nothing is going to change until some changes are made towards gun laws.

Tell me about the Boo Thang merchandise you have out now?
It’s funny because when I was on the show, I said it as an ad-lib on the first episode. She said, 'Call me Miss Thang' and it stuck in a sense, people started calling me “Miss Thang” and I kind of embodied that name. I think I’m pretty sassy and that name fits me very well. But overtime, [my fans] started calling me Miss Boo Thang. So I started calling them Boo Thang. I thought it was something very universal, because a lot of people love to use the term “Boo Thang” and to use it in my merchandise is pretty cool as well. It’s something I really wanted to do for the fans, so I’m really happy that it’s all coming together.

What's the end goal?
I’ve always wanted longevity, and to make timeless music. So, hopefully with this EP and my upcoming LP I can achieve that.

I'm just sittin in the studio just tryna get to you, baby 📷 @americanjeff

A photo posted by Miss Thang (@cierraramirez) on

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Jamie McCarthy, and Bryan Bedder

Take Five: DJ Khaled Talks ‘Father of Asahd’ And #Summergram Partnership

DJ Khaled started the summer off right with the release of his 11th studio album, Father of Asahd. It’s the second consecutive album where his two-year-old son serves as executive producer after 2017’s Grateful. Although Khaled’s rollout remained quite a mystery, the mega-producer is now in the midst of a heavy promotional schedule, jam-packed with guest-heavy Saturday Night Live performances and summer collaborations with the likes of Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, SZA, and more. Possibly his most appropriate partnership is with Pepsi and Instagram’s #SummerGram.

#Summergram has introduced customizable, reality filters and digital stickers to enhance the digital experience for consumers. Quirky summer-themed catchphrases like "Tropic Like It's Hot," "Turnt Not Burnt," "Catching Rays," and "Call Me On My Shell Phone" will appear with graphic icons and QR codes on Pepsi bottles that will help get fans in the mood for summer fun– pool parties, cookouts, and beach days. In celebration of the new launch, DJ Khaled joined social media maven, Chrissy Teigen, for a week of #Summergram events throughout major cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

“We are so excited to work with Instagram and bring some of their newest technology directly to our most loyal consumers. We know our fans love sharing their favorite moments on social media, and the summertime lends itself to so many post-worthy moments and occasions,” Todd Kaplan, VP of Marketing, Pepsi said. “The breadth of our Pepsi #Summergram statements and custom AR filters will ensure that there is something for everyone – no matter what you’re doing this summer – to help people unapologetically enjoy their best summer moments.”

No one knows how to make a summer anthem or amass a faithful social media following quite like Khaled. DJ Khaled briefly spoke to VIBE about his latest partnership and walked us through his vision for Father of Asahd.

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VIBE: What are your thoughts about your new partnership with Pepsi's Summergram? DJ Khaled: This seems like the perfect fit. I am excited to work with Pepsi – they are always spreading positive vibes and the Pepsi #Summergram collection is a lot of fun to play around with. You know I’m always posting to Instagram and these new AR filters help bring my content to the next level. Look out for more Pepsi #Summergram filters from me all summer long.

It seems like you’ve been intentional with this album rollout even more so than your past projects. What can you tell me about your strategy for this rollout? I decided we can’t do anything dinosaur anymore. For this album, everything had to be big. From the music to the rollout, everything had to be big! And watching it all come together is just beautiful. And I love to see the excitement from my fans! At the end of the day, it’s all for my fans.

What was the toughest song to create? To work with so many different artists and so many moving parts, I imagine it can be challenging. Every challenge is a blessing. The toughest ones to make are usually the biggest ones. I’m blessed to work with great artists and be able to create beautiful music together.

Can you speak to your intentions on beginning the album with “Holy Mountain” and ending it with “Holy Ground”? Me and Buju have a special relationship and have been friends for years. The whole album is very spiritual so it seemed right to start and end the project with those records. The message of the album is to not only receive our blessings but to protect them, as well. Everything for my son, Mama Asahd (Nicole Tuck) and fan love.

How did you go about securing the ‪Buju Banton features? He’s been relatively absent for years, so what were those early conversations like to get him on the album? Buju is family to me - and when he came back, I went to Jamaica to welcome my brother back home. He met my son and we were just vibing. Then Buju asked me to “play a chune” and I played him the “Holy Mountain” beat and Buju finished it in one take. We caught that take on film which is now in the “Holy Mountain” video. Then Buju said play me another one. I had this idea for “Holy Ground”—I played it for him and he loved it. The rest is history.

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Courtesy of Think BIG

How CJ Wallace Turned His Connection To Notorious B.I.G. Into A Cannabis Brand

Christopher Jordan “CJ” Wallace was exposed to the music industry at an early age. As the son of Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans, the 22-year-old recalls growing up with countless musicians stopping by his family’s home studio. “We had a studio in our house when we lived in Atlanta. This is around the time [of] Bad Boy South,” he tells VIBE during a visit to our Times Square office. “Any given Tuesday, Usher might come over. It would be crazy.”

While his childhood home served as a revolving door to legends, his family members purposefully delivered a reality check in the form of life-altering questions about his future. CJ’s mom, stepfather, Todd Russaw, and paternal grandmother, Voletta Wallace, constantly reinforced this idea of purpose and responsibility. Though he was only five months old when his father was fatally shot in 1997 in Los Angeles, he was expected to uphold Big’s legacy.

“[They] would talk to me very truthfully, like, ‘hey, it’s not fair, but this is how it is,'” he explains. “'You have a responsibility that a lot of people don’t have and that a lot of kids your age don’t have. You could f**k it up, or you could do something right.’”

This jolt of truth unfolded into a mission to discover what he was meant to do. His options were relatively limitless. The obvious path would be to get into music or maybe fashion. While CJ still had many of his dad’s artifacts – including freestyle videos and at-home footage – he wanted to learn what connected him not only to Notorious B.I.G., the persona, but to also Christopher George Latore Wallace, the man. “For me, it was figuring out how I can develop a brand that can honor the legacy of my father, be something I’m proud of and can pass down to my kids and grandkids. And yeah, something my grandma will definitely support at the end of the day.”

And that’s when it hit him. CJ remembered the relaxed and joyful vibe that overcame his family’s old Atlanta studio. “It’s all about the energy and that’s kind of where for me – sitting next to the speaker, smelling the cannabis, smelling the incense – that was what started it for me,” he says.

Wallace went on to found Think BIG, alongside Willie Mack and Russaw. Think BIG, he explains, is a brand and social movement encouraging society to embrace the cannabis industry and realize its potential to heal and stimulate creativity. In its first plan of action, the brand launched its first product: The Frank White Blend, named after one of B.I.G’s many aliases.

Right now, there is a common focus on the recreational use of cannabis; consumers are flooded with images of kids, middle-aged adults, and celebrities sparking up to escape their realities or “have fun.” Prior to the arrival of Psalm West, Kim Kardashian threw a CBD and meditation-themed baby shower for her fourth child in April 2019. In addition to lifting you off the ground, however, Wallace, Mack and Think BIG want to introduce society to the healing and creative benefits of cannabis. Mack learned about cannabis’ healing powers in a major way during his youth.

“As a kid, watching [how] the AIDS crisis ravaged the world and seeing the LGBT community fighting for cannabis to help them with nausea during AZT [antiretroviral medication used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS] was my first indication of [thinking] cannabis was a drug, but people are actually using it to try to stay alive,” Mack said, noting that he had several family members who were dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, Wallace uncovered the alternative nature of the plant when his family experimented with it as a form of medication for his younger brother, who was diagnosed with autism. After testing various strains, Wallace confirms they found the right balance, but since cannabis isn’t an approved medication, his brother is unable to use it publicly. “This is helping my youngest brother every day,” he insists. “It’s unfair because we can’t give it to him and let him take it to school and have the school nurse actually prescribe it to him so he’s constantly getting that regular medication. You can’t take it to school, but the kids in his school are being given opioids, which has crazy after effects.”

Creatively speaking, Wallace and Mack consider cannabis to be the “ultimate ghostwriter.” It’s no secret B.I.G. was an advocate. From numerous consultations with his family members, he learned his dad often smoked while recording. (Mack also notes famous smokers like Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley.) Just about every corner of the music industry has dabbled in recreational smoking, but no genre has been hit as hard as hip-hop. While fans love to watch Snoop Dogg smoke on Instagram Live or share a spliff with Kid Cudi during a concert set, the hip-hop community as a whole is met with backlash and often times targeted by police due to cannabis.

“I feel like anything associated with black men is just immediately going to be deemed bad or evil,” Wallace says, referencing the negative connotation rappers receive. It’s Wallace’s mission, however, to adjust that perspective. “I feel like it’s really up to us to change that narrative. That’s why I try so hard to stop saying words like ‘weed.’ Cannabis, it’s actually a plant," he continues. Both Wallace and Mack noted the terms "weed" and "marijuana" hold negative connotations and are commonly used in connection with minorities. "We were lied to for so long. If we were given proper knowledge from the start, I feel like the entire hip-hop community and the entire way we talked about it would’ve changed.”

Beyond educating consumers with their message and products, Think BIG also seeks to improve the criminal justice system as well as launch charitable projects. According to “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. Such racial disparities reportedly exist in all regions, states, and counties around the United States and largely contribute to today's mass incarceration crisis.

In recent years, the U.S. government has made significant strides to correct this injustice. California, Nevada, and Maine are among the first states to legalize cannabis; states such as New York have already begun the process of exonerating offenders convicted of nonviolent charges and marijuana possession. Despite the steps forward, Wallace and Mack say there is a long road ahead.

Not only is it difficult to eradicate a vicious cycle that has left many black and brown people behind bars, but it is also hard to forge spaces for them to succeed in a rapidly changing industry. “Being able to understand how to navigate the industry that’s constantly changing and to do it without a bank account or full funnel of money, makes it that much harder,” Mack says. “Then on top of that, you got people sitting in jail who should be out of jail for nonviolent possession of cannabis. So, we’re faced with having to work four times as hard to make half as much because of the color of our skin. It’s a constant fight and we look at it as how can we set an example, share our knowledge, [and] show more information?”

It takes a group effort, Mac says. While Think BIG is setting a place at the table for black businesses in the cannabis industry as well as shifting the conversation around the plant, Mack suggests other ways to get involved that ultimately uplift the black community. “It’s much easier to enter into the market based on something you already know,” Mack insists, pointing out the opportunities for design firms, packaging, and communication firms to join the movement.

Wallace and Mack know the journey ahead is going to be a roller-coaster ride fit with many twists and turns, but they’re ready. “You got to dream big, as your dad said, and think big,” Mack says. “Everyone else in this industry is thinking about global billion-dollar companies, why shouldn’t we?” As for Wallace, he understands how difficult the process is and will be, “but, it wasn’t more emotional than the first 21 years of my life.”

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TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television

On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with  Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.

One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.

In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.

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Good Times (1974 - 1979)

Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”

When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.

Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.

Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.

The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.

The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.

But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.

“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”

The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).

The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.

Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’

”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”

Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)

Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved.  Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.

(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)

Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”

Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.

Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.

The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)

The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.

Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers  – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.

George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.

George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?

Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.

Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?

The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.

I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.

George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.

At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.

By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.

George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.

Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”

I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.

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