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Interview: Ava DuVernay And 'Queen Sugar' Cast Talk Women Directors And Family Intricacies

Ava DuVernay and the cast of OWN's Queen Sugar give a brief introduction into their complicated family dynamic and the characters they play.

Academy-Award nominated director Ava DuVernay takes a step back from the silver screen for the small screen to deliver Queen Sugar, a story about a family struck by tragedy as they collectively and individually gain their footing in the after. The 13-episode season premiere, which kicks off Sept. 6 and 7, will show viewers not only a reflection of the human intricacies families often go through, but Ms. DuVernay was not shy about casting actors rich in talent and melanin.

VIBE caught up with the Selma director and cast at this year's Essence Festival where DuVernay spoke in detail about why this season is directed solely by women, and the cast goes in depth about their individual roles and their complicated family history.

VIBE: What complexities will the women directors bring to the show and what humanities will they bring?
Ava DuVernay: I think you bring yourself to it but the idea is who is the self, who is the person dictating what it's like. Does that self, or does that person who has the job of dictating what we see always have to be a man? Does it always have to be a white man? Does it always have to be the same kind of voice? I don't know what they're going to bring, I mean we're looking at it right now, we're editing it together but I know it's going to be different from what we usually see and that's what I want. I want something that's going to shake things up a little bit.

How do the female directors and the writer's room change the feel of the show?
The writer's room is a diverse writer's room with the majority of the writers being people of color and women. Every director is a woman and the whole crew is diverse. It's a inclusive crew as we say, so I think that chemistry, that alchemy, that idea of having all different kinds of people comes out in the show. It feels different, its a bit of all of us in there.

Tell me about your character Nova Bordelone.
Rutina Wesley: 
She is the oldest. She's a healer with her hands and also with her spirit and energy. She's a leader in her community, the world community, her home community and she's an activist. She's sort of a modern day woman who's a beautiful mess. I describe her in that way because your going to see a lot of different facets of her. For example, she has high morals, but her lover is married. And as far as her siblings go we've been estranged so now we all have to come back together after a family tragedy and figure out how to navigate our relationships that have been distant and she serves as the head of that as far as trying to get us all together in that kind of way.

What about your character?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner:
I play Charley Bordelon West. When you meet Charley, she is a manager to her husband Davis West who is a major NBA superstar. She's a mother to a teenager son, and she's very defined by her achievements and success. It's how she establishes her self worth and that's all turned upside down within the first episode and she's confronting who she is without those things defining her anymore. So we find her back in Louisiana and back with her family whom she's been estranged from and figuring out her relationships again and figuring out who she is in this new environment. It's sort of like a new world strategist because she's a master strategist in an old world and how does she move forward.

When I was doing my research, I learned that the family now has to learn how to run a sugarcane farm?
DLG: It's inherited land and it's also how the family has to find itself as a farming family and there's been a lot of problems with that and it sort of reflects the state of black farmers in America. There's a lot historical obstacles that are very specific to that community so we being to unearth that through the season.

What were some of your first expressions and reactions when you learned you landed the role?
RW: When Ava called me, it was the day after my 37th birthday, and she said, 'I would love for you to come on Queen Sugar.' I was silent, and then it was kind of crazy, and then she told me that she also cast Dawn and I am losing it. I was just so proud. Honestly, we really get to the work because we know each other. We can really get deep and nasty and then be like, 'Love You' when its all said and done. And that's the kind of work that your'e going to see coming from all of us because we are there to serve a story and we're really going to give you story and characters. We really allow ourselves to be completely free in our play and our work.

Your character is the youngest and he's searching for redemption after doing time in prison. Tell me about your character a little bit. What's his name?
Kofi Siriboe:  Ralph Angel Bordelon. Ralph Angel was in prison. He has a son that he left behind and he's just looking for his identity. He's been a victim to his choices in the past and now he's trying to actually form what he believes he is, which I don't think he completely knows but through his family dynamics, his sisters, his auntie, the loss of his father, the absence of his mother, there's so many things that are playing with his mental, then the reality of him being formally incarcerated hits him. He doesn't have the freedom and choices that the average man, or human being has, so he has to navigate that world but at the same time navigate the internal life of all this stuff that you have to deal with.

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D'Angelo And Maxwell Were Originally Scheduled For A 'Verzuz' Battle

It's no secret. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have been working hard to pair up some of hip-hop and R&B's biggest stars for their Verzuz celebratory battles. To date, the duo has successfully hosted 24 of these events on Instagram Live and their streaming partner, Apple Music. Now, what you rarely hear about are the matches that could have been. In a live conversation following D'Angelo's damn-near-solo set—that many R&B lovers didn't know they needed—Swizz Beatz and Timbaland revealed how the soulful crooner was originally scheduled to take part in Verzuz alongside fellow "neo-soul" singer Maxwell.

"I'm not gonna lie. That sh*t took very long. Let's give people the story," starts Swizz. "What was supposed to happen was D'Angelo versus Maxwell on Valentine's Day. That didn't work out, but the fact that D'Angelo was still ready to go and still motivated, we had to celebrate him— matter who was on stage with him. We had to celebrate that king because, as you can see, those songs that he played tonight, man, that's real music."

He continues: "This is a celebrational stage and we couldn't play around with him. We had to let him get his garden because he showed up and showed out. That man pulled up to Verzuz three hours early. D'Angelo was the earliest person in Verzuz history tonight so don't get him showing up [at] the time he did mixed up with the pre-show which was by DJ Scratch."

Message received, but could you imagine how many more ladies would've gotten their lives on that night of love? Can you imagine the attempted falsetto singing done by viewers on that special and rare night? It would've been nice to see D'Angelo and Maxwell on the same bill, that's for sure.

Watch Swizz and Timbo talk about the match that could have been while clearing the air about D'Angelo's start-time at around the 4-minute and 20-second mark of the video below.

 

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Courtesy of Wondery

Taraji P. Henson Hosting New Podcast Series, 'Jacked: Rise of the New Jack Sound'

Actress and philanthropist Taraji P. Henson is the host and producer of Jacked: Rise of the New Jack Sound, a newly premiered podcast series on the rise and fall of the popular music genre, New Jack Swing.

From Univeral Music Group and independent podcast publisher Wonderly, the six-part series "focuses on the complex relationships of a group of teenagers from Harlem who would create a sound that forever changed music." Aside from featuring classic songs from UMG's catalog—like Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker,” Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison”— the audio feature includes interviews from the singers, songwriters, and musicians including Teddy Riley, former member of Guy and one of the innovators of the hip-hop, R&B, funk, house-fused genre that dominated the airwaves from the mid-'80s until the early '90s.

Jacked is written by Rico Gagliano and Andy Hermann, with Barry Michael Cooper serving as a c0nsulting producer.

Earlier this year, Henson kicked off the year with the debut of her hair care line, TPH by Taraji. Her non-profit Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation has been providing free virtual therapy session for people of color to combat the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. She'll also be hosting the 2020 American Music Awards with Bel Biv Devoe and Nelly scheduled to perform. Clearly, Taraji P. Henson is booked and busy.

As for the Jacked podcast, you can find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the Wondery App, and other streaming platforms.

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Dana Lixenberg

VIBE Vault: 'Dre Day: Andre Harrell' (December 1995 / January 1996)

In the business of music, there's no name with as much resonance as Motown. Former Uptown Entertainment president Andre Harrell—the man responsible for Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and Heavy D—is taking over the legendary label and promising to bring the noise. But can he fight through the nostalgia and lead Motown into the 21st century? By Anthony DeCurtis. Photographs by Dana Lixenberg

"You know how Jeffrey Katzenberg became Disney? That's what I want to do. Like, how you felt Jeffrey had a passion about Disney—his Mickey Mouse watches, Disney sweatshirt, Disney tie. That's what I'm talking about. I will be at the Motown Cafe. I'll make Motown ties, watch­es, sweatshirts. I intend to make Motown the black Disney," Andre Harrell says with a smile. "You might as well start calling me Walt."

Harrell, 35, is obviously a man with a plan. Good thing, too. He's stepping into one of the most vis­ible jobs in the entertainment industry: president and CEO of Motown Records. "It's always been a dream of mine to head up Motown," he says.

Yet the lofty position confronts Harrell with a critical challenge. Motown has fallen far from what it once was. Aside from the monumental Boyz II Men, Motown has increasingly become a sound­track for nostalgia, much more redolent of the past than the present. It's so hard to say good-bye to yesterday, indeed. Harrell, a product of the hip hop generation, knows his job is to introduce Mo­town—music, television, film, video, animation, and new media—to tomorrow.

A Bronx native, he got his start in the early '8os as half of the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (He was Dr. Jekyll.) After moving over to the business side of the business, he hooked up with rap mogul Russell Simmons and soon landed a top spot at Simmons's company, Rush Communications, where he worked with the likes of Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, and Whodini.

Harrell stepped out on his own in 1986, when he launched his own label, Uptown Entertain­ment, as part of a joint venture with MCA. At Uptown, Harrell defined a contemporary R&B sound for the hip hop age, bringing the world Guy, Heavy D, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Al B. Sure!, Father MC, and most recently, Soul for Real (with whom he had his first No. 1 pop hit, "Candy Rain"). He produced the 1991 film Strictly Business, and he coproduces the hit Fox series New York Undercover.

Successful as the artists on his label proved to be, Harrell has felt constrained in his efforts to make them pop superstars, both by his arrange­ment with Uptown's parent company, MCA, and by the troubling racial politics of the music busi­ness in general. Moving to Motown, which is now based in Los Angeles and owned by PolyGram, presents Harrell with the opportunity to put at least some of these issues behind him. At Motown, Harrell says, he'll have more people, more prerogative, more punch.

Seated on a couch in the living room of his Upper West Side New York apartment, dressed simply in a black shirt and white slacks, Harrell focused squarely through his blue shades on what must be done. A framed photo of a serious-looking Harrell arm-in-arm with Mickey Mouse sat on an end table.

Clearly a man who enjoys control, Harrell was soft-spoken and intent. He didn't want to be mis­understood. "Am I correct?" he would ask. "Do you follow me?" He leaned forward, and his voice rose with passion as he discussed his frustrations with MCA. Otherwise, he slipped back into the pil­lows of his sofa and spoke as if he was envisioning his future life in a dream.

Harrell knows he has as much on the line as Motown, if not more. All eyes will be on him. It's one thing to say you would've done something if only you'd gotten the chance. It's quite another to get the chance and have to do it.

"Every record has gotta be right," he said. "I'm trying to sign stars. I'm not gonna have wack-juice on me. Never did, never will."

What has Motown meant to you over the years? When was the first time you knew what it was?

The first true Motown experience I had was when the Jackson 5 were on the Ed Sullivan Show. I think it might've been, like, 1969, '70. They sang "Stand!" and "I Want You Back." I had never seen a black teenager on television—it was incredible. After that, I realized who the Motown artists were. My parents listened to them: the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, the Temptations.

What did the company represent for you?

Motown has always been the epitome of black excellence and artistry. Stevie sang about love in the most sensitive way, as well as telling about the plight of his people. Marvin sang about the plight of his people and his internal fight, but he sang about love in a very sexy way. They were major influences.

Speaking of Stevie Wonder, he made a strong album last year and nothing happened with it. Can Motown sell a Stevie Wonder record in this day and age?

The Four Tops, the Temps, and, especially, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross—these are national trea­sures. You have to treat them like events. Stevie Wonder, he's someone I would do an Unplugged with. Or a couple of years ago, it was Stevie's 3oth anniversary in show business. You could have got­ten Stevie Wonder a television special. We could have had artists pay tribute to him—pop artists, rock artists, R&B artists, rap artists, everybody could have participated. And there's probably no other female, black or white, who's as fabulous as Diana Ross, who epitomizes the glamour and excitement of a star diva.

What about new directions? What makes Motown happen in the '9os?

Motown has to become the lifestyle label for the times that the active record-buying audience—the audience who's 15 to 3o—is living in. One of the ways you do this is by putting out records that are in the groove that that audience is living in. Like if Mary J. Blige was a Motown artist, Motown would have some of her imaging on it. It's that young, hip hop—soul, Generation X energy. Same thing if Jodeci was on the label. Back in the day, Motown talked to everybody in the ghetto—and it talked to the rest of the world too.

"WHEN YOU THINK OF MOTOWN NOW, YOU'RE GONNA THINK OF ANDRE HARRELL. I'M NOT GONNA WORK FOR MOTOWN, I'M GONNA BE MOTOWN."

That sounds like the philosophy you espoused at Uptown.

The thing that [Motown founder] Berry Gordy led the way with is the idea that the label head becomes the image of the label. Myself, I allowed whatever celebri­ty occurred in my career to happen through the artists. I was so consistent with the kinds of artists who were on my label, after a while, it was, like, "Who's behind all this?" I was behind it.

Going into Motown, my plan is this: When you think of Motown now, you're gonna think of Andre Harrell. I'm not gonna work for Motown, I'm gonna be Motown—in the way I dress, the records I put out, the causes I choose to get involved in, the artists from the past, the artists who are there now, and the artists in the future. Like I lived Uptown Records, I'm gonna live Motown Records.

But you, Russell Simmons, Sean ."Puffy" Combs—and Berry Gordy before you—are entrepreneurs. You're identified with the companies you founded. With this, you're stepping into something—

—that's already existing. I'm gonna be Motown for this generation of young-adult record buyers. Motown was the blueprint. Berry Gordy was the blueprint for what I became.

Were you conflicted about leaving Uptown?

I had tremendous conflict. It was like I was walking away from my works of art. There will never be another Mary J. Blige—it's rare to find a queen. There will nev­er be another Jodeci. There'll never be another Heavy D. But I have to go, because Motown gives me the power I need to go to the next level. I have to make African-American superstars. At Uptown, I was able to make black icons, but they were icons only to black people.

[I was] trying to grow Uptown, to have indepen­dence, to be able to say, "This act is getting ready to be a worldwide star, and I'm gonna take all my resources, and we're gonna march to this one beat." I was trying to do that for nine years. Between me and the corpora­tion, I could never get it to happen.

In terms of support from MCA?

I think MCA, after a period, wanted some of these things to happen. For whatever reasons, though, the execution between the two sides never worked. The biggest record I ever had was Jodeci's [1991] Forever My Lady—3 million.

When [Arista president] Clive Davis got in the game, I felt myself shrinking. Once he got in business with LaFace [L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds] and [Dallas Austin's] Rowdy Records and Puffy [Bad Boy Entertainment], Davis's commitment and his exe­cution were taking those artists where I wanted my artists to go. I wanted Mary J. Blige to sell the 7 million that Toni Braxton did.

Jodeci came to me because I had Al B. Sure! So they figured, "He knows how to do this. We wanna be down with him." They drove 13 hours, sat in my lobby for eight hours just to meet me. Now, I feel like, with Arista being involved with LaFace and the other labels, they sold 7 million Toni Braxtons. They sold 6 million TLCs. I'm, like, if I can't sell these kinds of records, I'm gonna slowly shrink. I was catching heat from my artists, who wanted that kind of stature. I would bring that frustra­tion to MCA, and we couldn't seem to come to terms.

Was the idea, "Well, Andre's doing fine. He's doing a cou­ple of million here, a couple of million there. He's covered. Were gonna invest somewhere else"?

I felt like a figurehead. I had all this energy around me—like, I was the Man. I was the founder and chairman of Uptown Records, a major, culturally influen­tial entertainment company for African-Americans in the '9os. But I didn't feel like the Man, because I could­n't put my finger on the button that would really make it happen. I don't want to be in that position anymore. I need to have more control. I need to be responsible for the big picture. And being at Motown positions me to create a truly black pop company. I got a film divi­sion, a television division. I got green-light power for small movies. I don't have to ask anybody.

What are your plans with Gordy?

We're gonna do a series of commercials—print and television. He endorses me. We spoke yesterday for about an hour, and he said, "Any advice I can give you about where we go from here, feel free to call me." We're gonna spend time together and talk about his history with the elder stars. I feel as if I've had a tremendous amount of experience working with stars' drama and ego, but we're talking a whole 'nother level of stars. I've never built a superstar. There're superstars at this house.

How do you build superstars?

If black stars are gonna have a shot at becoming pop stars, it's gonna be because the chairman of the company is committed to them—and because their music is his personal taste. That's what I'm bringing to black music, to black musical stars. Not just their art form but their plight as African-American men and women.

What you're describing is a role that black executives play, but aren't they often frustrated in their attempts to rise at most record companies? 

I can't talk about it enough, how few black execu­tives get to control their playing field. Black music is becoming the music of the popular culture. Because of that, companies are repositioning their priorities and trying to get in the game. But as black music becomes more important, there should be more black presidents and black chairmen. As soon as the black executive's artist reaches platinum, suddenly the artist and man­ager have to deal with the president of the corporation, because he controls the priorities at pop radio. The black executive becomes obsolete. As his music gets bigger his power diminishes. He's more or less told, "Go find the next act and establish it."

It's an emphasis on the creative—

—as opposed to the business. That's why young black executives don't get to become the old chairmen—the wise men who've seen it and done it. They get to stay hot black executives so long as their instincts are hot. But this is a lifestyle business—only a few of us, black or white, are going to be cool enough to have great in­stincts our whole career.

The black executive is not given the opportunity to become the business and the music. Why not? Why shouldn't he be the one that everybody reports to? When you get an act that sells 5 million—at a major compa­ny—the black executive's out of the room. But when there's some sort of problem, the major label looks at the black executive: "Why can't you handle this act?" When the artist hires a violent manager and the violent manager is coming up to the record company, the label's, like, "How did it get to this?" How? Because they [the white executives] couldn't see it coming. Because they re not sensitive to his issues. By then the relation­ship between the record company and the artist is dys­functional. And then the black executive gets blamed and fired. But they created the monster.

When I had the artist, I talked to his mother, his girl­friend, his babies' mother with the two children, dealt with his drug counselor, and whatever other dysfunc­tional Generation X problems he has. He'd call me late at night.

But he feels like they're just businesspeople. And they don't understand. And they might be racist. He's comin' with all that energy. Even if they like him as a person, he still has goo years of issues he has to get over to accept them. And they have a lot of work to do to gain his trust and respect.

So what are your immediate plans?

I will be moving to Beverly Hills. I'll have a house out there for a 12-to-18-month period, and I'll be bicoastal between the New York and L.A. offices. Then I'm moving the company to New York. I'm going to have a satellite office in Atlanta—A&R-oriented. I'm going to build a recording studio in New York, Motown Studios.

Any new musical directions?

The sound I'm going for now is soul. I'm looking for voices that sound like 400 years of slavery and then some. I'm looking for that inspirational, take-us-out­-of-our-plight, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Al Green voice. I'm looking to build those kinds of stars now.

What about the younger acts on Motown? Have you met with Boyz II Men?

No. Those meetings will come after I execute the deal. Boyz II Men are the biggest group I've ever seen. I don't know what I'm bringing to the party except to keep them from goin' crazy from the level of success they've had. They probably need a break, a little time out to lead their personal lives. Outside of that, that for­mula is working. Queen Latifah, I'd like to bring her record sales up to match her celebrity. Zhané I'd like to give a little bit more image. I'm gonna bring Johnny Gill back—he had a fabulous first album. And I'm excit­ed about working with Michael Bivins. He's tremen­dously talented, and if he and I get together, we can real­ly do some important things.

Are you apprehensive?

I got a lot of work to do. But no problems. Making hits is not a problem. I'll be making some noise real quick. And I ain't gonna stop makin' noise until I'm done.

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1995 - Jan. 1996 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Anthony DeCurtis | Header Photography by Dana Lixenberg

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