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VIBE/Christine Imarenezor

Meet Jazz Cartier, The New Fearless Voice Of Toronto's Rap Scene

Get familiar. 

Jazz Cartier is pleasantly surprised. If it weren't for the large, rectangular frames veiling his eyes, I would have probably pick up on it earlier, but the combination of sprightly strides in his steps and a wide-set smirk says it all.

It's 3:40 p.m. and just hours earlier, the rising rapper hailing from Toronto made his Lollapalooza debut an unforgettable one. Outwardly confident, he bounced back and forth on stage shirtless, dreads swaying from side to side as he ran through his budding discography like a seasoned vet. And although his set time was quite early for the crowd of festival-goers who hadn't yet cracked open their first Bud Light of the day, libations weren't even needed with the energy he served up.

"I’m just thinking bigger," Cartier says. He's perched in a wooded area of Chicago's Grant Park. On one accord he's reflecting on his performance that was filled with a crowd-pleasing intensity, but can't seem to shake the one-on-one game of ping-pong he's dueling himself in, eagerly focusing his eye on the whereabouts of the now airborne orange ball.

While other people simply throw around empty words about making it big in the industry, Cartier is actually doing it. The self-proclaimed Prince of Toronto, better known to the masses as the city's most promising rapper since Drake, has spent the first half of his youth developing his sound most are beginning to admire him for. The resulting blueprint: A sharp-tongued emcee whose underbelly griminess is balanced with emotive, melodic vibes.

Showcasing that same duality on his debut mixtape Marauding in Paradise (2015) and 2016's contending follow-up Hotel Paranoia, aided in growing the upstart's listeners beyond the borders of his hometown. And just like the city of Toronto, the Red Bull Sound Select artist's reputation of being unstoppable growing force only continues to flourish. Now, after delivering two favorably praised projects, major labels are courting the free agent, who keeps authenticity at the forefront of his brand. "That comes first," he assures. It's apparent that for someone who spits like second chances are few and far between, his future is as bright as the golden rings that adorn his knuckles, which still can't seem to keep steady because of the ping-pong game.

After making his Lollapalooza debut, VIBE caught up with Cartier to talk about his budding fan base, the new wave of Toronto, the authenticity his music purveys and more.

VIBE: You just killed your Lollapalooza debut. How does it feel getting out here, doing the whole festival scene and experiencing it all?
Jazz Cartier: Yeah, I'm traveling all summer. It’s been pretty crazy, you know? It gets exhausting at times, but when it comes to the day of and seeing the fans I wouldn't trade it for anything. For me to play a 12:50 [p.m.] set with that many people to come out, I was thinking at least 10, 20 probably a couple hundred. So that was pretty good.

How does it feel when you're performing and you see people reciting your lyrics and are super hype?
It’s really crazy. I never thought this thing through all the way, like how like far it would or could go. Chicago and Toronto are pretty close, it’s like one of those places, where if something's not popping then people don’t really go. I'm still kind of new so I appreciate all the love for those that choose to listen to me.

Being from Toronto, can you tell me about what the music scene is like right now opposite from the mainstream acts we all know? 
It’s just a whole bunch of kids coming out and doing their thing. We’ve all been cooped up in our caves for years, waiting for this moment for the world to give us some shine. And guys like BADBADNOTGOOD are killing it, Tory Lanez is killing it. Then there’s obviously guys like Drake and The Weeknd. So I’m happy to be part of the new wave of guys ushering it in for the city.

Is it a friendly competition because in a recent interview you spoke of having no competition whatsoever and no one being the same tier as yourself. 
I said that?

Yeah, in the Toronto StarDo you have a relationship with Drake at all?
Oh, with Drake? Me and him are cool. The last time I saw him, he like gave me the blessing and told me to keep doing it. 6 God is always watching, you know? But in regards to that comment, I meant Drake’s not even in the question when people talk about Toronto competition because he’s on the stratosphere. I was talking about in general, you know? It’s just like only two really doing it: myself and Tory.

So how'd you get here today, becoming a rapper? 
I started rapping in my dorm room. It was freshman year of boarding school. I told people I was a rapper, but I had never rapped in front of anybody before in my life. People heard and then I got pushed into a room with 30 n****s, all on the football team. They were just cyphering. I was the new kid, so I had to do it. I said some rhymes and the whole room went crazy. And after that, I took it seriously. My homeboy Problems, back in school, he’s from the heart of Connecticut, he actually taught me how to rap; and my boys. It was all a slow progression until I started to find my own sound. I actually stuttered when I was a kid, a lot. So once I got over that hump it was smooth sailing.

Speaking of finding your sound, I've heard people compare you to Travis Scott. How do you think your music separates you from the rest? 
I think the diversity and the content and the effort I put into the songs. No song you’ll hear from me is lazy. I won’t do a song and put it out the next day. I take time with all my records. So I think over time, once my audience gets bigger, I think people will appreciate the stuff that I’ve done now and how I'm moving because they’ll then understand all of the hard work that I put in. I get the Travis stuff, though. I rock with him.

You just put out two really great mixtapes (Marauding in Paradise and Hotel Paranoia) just ten months apart from each other. I'm curious as to what your recording process is like.

If I’m at home, I’m recording everyday. I’m in the studio from 2 p.m. until 8 a.m. Wake up, do it all again. There’s no need for me to party in Toronto. There’s nothing for me to do and celebrate right now. I go out here and there, but it's like in and out -- maybe 15 minutes at most, that’s it. It’s like always working for the bigger goal. From the grace of God, I could die tomorrow and if I’m not working this hard, I have two songs unreleased. But now I have over a couple hundred that I always go back and pick on and keep building. There are some songs that I have ideas for that I’ll just save. I’m like this isn’t the right time. A year later, I’ll revisit it with a clear mind. Go back, mix the song, see where it goes.

That's one definitely one of the perks of being an independent artist.
I only have a distribution deal in Canada, but I’m in that phase where they’re calling and I’m taking dinners, getting bribes. It’s very fascinating. But I’m going to hold off on it though, until I have some leverage. I mean, I love it. But no matter what way I choose to go, whichever road I take, I’m always in love with the authenticity of my music and that comes first.

For someone who hasn’t heard your music before, maybe doesn’t know much about you, what would be your elevator pitch?
People say I’m a dark artist. I’m not a dark guy though. I just been through some dark times and I think that shows in the music. I think the top three songs that give a good perception of me is "Dead Or Alive," "Stick & Move," and third is tied between "I Know" and "Tell Me."

Aside from traveling and doing shows, what are you doing in the meantime? Can we expect a new project soon?
More shows. But as far as when a project’s coming out, I’m not saying it's project right now per se. I just have songs that I’m going to be releasing towards the end of the year.

So, what's the end goal for Jazz Cartier?
I want to be headlining this, and then I want to be doing arenas. Sh**, I want to make a bigger arena so I can perform in that. I’m just thinking bigger.

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Ebro Darden caught the Internet's wrath after calling out Kodak Black for sexual assault during an interview.
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We're Looking At Y'all: Hip-Hop Won't Have A 'Me Too' Moment Because Of Apologists

Ebro Darden — the host of Hot 97 FM’s radio show Ebro In The Morning — caught the ire of the Internet Wednesday evening (Dec. 12) after a clip from an interview with 21-year-old rapper Kodak Black made the rounds. The longtime radio personality merely admonished and acknowledged the rapper’s recent sexual assault cases, including one that he is currently awaiting trial for. While Ebro noted he wouldn’t be able to go into details since the case is ongoing, he did take a moment to acknowledge that sexual assault is serious, and the discussion will not be ignored in the future.

“Respect to everybody involved in that case, we can’t get into details today… We take sexual assault here serious,” “El Viejo Ebro” exclaimed. “We can’t get into details, but we hope to have you back so that we can have a deeper conversation about that. It’s a serious topic, we’re hearing these stories a lot.” No more than two minutes later, the interview was over, as a visibly uncomfortable Kodak, legal name Bill K. Kapri, stated that the media is “entertained” by “bullsh*t” before leaving.

For some asinine reason, Ebro — a man whose job it is to interview musicians about life and their craft — was the one getting the heat for bringing up the allegations. The uproar was not given to the alleged sexual offender, but to the host acknowledging the wrongdoing by the alleged sexual offender.

Label booked him. I didn’t force anything. I was attenpting to make sure a huge issue was not ignored. https://t.co/vnl0JqeLfi

— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) December 13, 2018

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed posed the question: “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?” Due to the fans, some media personalities and the higher powers continuing to insulate these artists and avoiding discussion of the elephants in the room, it won’t — at least for the time being.

Fans of the Florida MC ignorantly tweeted that Ebro is likely working “with the Feds” for bringing up the sexual assault allegation proves that time will not be up anytime soon for men who allegedly abuse women in the game.

Due to many fans’ beliefs that hosts and journalists should “stick to asking artists about music” — and not the controversial lives often documented and discussed more than the careers that provide them bread and butter on the table — time will not be up. A similar “demand” came up earlier this year, when Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” instead of using his platform to discuss politics.

Then, there are media personalities like Peter Rosenberg, who during the Kodak interview aimed to deflect from the situation at hand by asking about the moon landing of 1969, in order to make Kodak feel a bit more comfortable (although his status in the hip-hop game despite his documented wrongdoing certainly makes some uncomfortable as well).

We also can’t ignore the woman on the panel, Laura Stylez, who chose to stay silent instead of using her platform and her voice to stand up for the women allegedly affected by Kodak’s behavior, or women in general. As a woman, her silence rubbed me the wrong way entirely.

These two, however, are not the only problematic personalities. DJ Akademiks, YouTuber turned host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, often discusses his relationship with embattled musician Tekashi 6ix9ine.

“I’m a little sad… but these are the decisions that got here,” Ak, real name Livingston Allen, said in a recent episode of the YouTube series regarding Tekashi’s recent high-profile racketeering arrest and possibility of life in jail. However, he continued to acknowledge that the young man is his n***a, and has not appeared to call out Tekashi for the allegations against him in terms of sexual misconduct.

It doesn’t appear he’s discussed his homie’s sexual misconduct charges head-on since 2014. Even in this particular interview, it appears that the 27-year-old was being more of an apologist for his friend, stating that “[he] could tell [Tekashi] was young, and obviously not thinking straight.”

Is this insulation of musicians who lead perilous lives a way to hold on to the clout these personalities have obtained? Or, is it realizing that if they stop defending these artists as a way to defend those who are hurt, they’ll lose a legion of equally as troublesome fans and followers in the process? Why not attempt to discuss the difficult topic at hand with as much discretion as possible, instead of getting a biased view of the story for clicks?

I know that as a woman in hip-hop, hip-hop doesn’t always love me back, but if this isn’t a slap in the face? To have this conversation occur in the same week that Cyntoia Brown was told she had to serve 51 years in prison for defending herself against a potential rapist, it’s infuriating to have to write about the blatant disregard and disrespect for the well-being of women in society in a field that I hold dear to my heart.

Due to the “separating artists from art” thought-process, especially in such a male-dominated industry and genre, it’s unsurprising that this is the response Ebro received for calling out wrongdoing.

This is the same thought process that allows R. Kelly to continue to tour despite well-documented instances of sexual misconduct for 25 years.

This is the same thought-process that causes music fans to lash out at Vic Mensa for “vehemently rejecting the trend in hip-hop of championing abusers”; although many would argue that he wasn’t the proper messenger to convey such a statement, the intentionality in the statement was appreciated by many.

On a grander scale, this is the same apologist thought-process that placed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump in the White House… and look at how well that’s going.

If we continue this trend of protecting the men in the game and not putting the well-being of the minority consumers of the genre into consideration (such as women and members of the LGBTQ community), hip-hop could be headed to a very murky place. While I don’t always agree with Ebro Darden, I applaud his effort in attempting to start a conversation that can’t continue to be ignored any longer, especially as a man with a platform in the hip-hop media space.

As hip-hop fans, we should aim to hold these artists accountable for their lyrics, comments and behavior. We can’t argue that they’re not hurting anyone through these things just because you don’t feel threatened, because best believe, someone does.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Ebro, Vic and other men attempting to hold these artists accountable is a small step on a long journey. While it’s clear that consumers are more interested in the music these people put out than the lives they lead, it would behoove all of us to take a long look at the state of the game beyond the bars and beats.

READ MORE: Ebro Calls Out Kodak Black For Sexual Assault During Interview

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On 'Captured,' Spice Proves Women Can Rule Dancehall One Hit At A Time

Since her childhood, Spice knew the career path she wanted to attain would come with its fair share of roadblocks. After putting in work and releasing a stream of singles in the early 2000s, Spice would receive minor recognition here and there. Despite this slow-burn to stardom, the determined artist kept her foot on the gas until VP Records presented her with a contract in 2009. While maintaining the love she has for the dancehall genre, the “Complain (Mi Gone)” singer knew that she had to adopt an independent artist’s tenacity and hunger for success. Her knack for charting melodies began to become the norm, but with little support from the label (according to Spice), the fortified singer had to find her own way to become a household name.

Spice’s first appearance on the charts arrived nearly 10 years ago. The Jamaica-born singer and glorified dancehall artist Vybz Kartel collaborated on “Romping Shop,” the pair’s erotic take on Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent.” The melody peaked on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart at No. 76 in 2009, solidifying an already influential being in Kartel and a destined-for-stardom demeanor in Spice. In 2014, her So Mi Like It EP landed at No. 14 on Billboard’s U.S. Top Reggae Albums chart. Today, the “Fiesta” artist is celebrating her place on the boards again with her mixtape Captured, but this time the self-proclaimed dancehall queen reigns at the top spot.

Released in November 2018, Captured (Spice Official Entertainment) broke through the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart at No. 1 (Nov. 17). The 19-track project displays Spice at her finest: the melodies that her fans long for like “Mine Mine Mine” to “Body Right” are abundantly sprinkled throughout the mixtape. While those whine-tastic songs will get any waistline rocking, tracks like “Black Hypocrisy” and “Captured” put into perspective the harsh realities the singer, born Grace Latoya Hamilton, faces in her career.

The title track, which strikes an emotional chord within Spice when she performs it, is dedicated to her label VP Records and emotes a feeling of being trapped in a deal that has yet to fulfill its promise in her eyes. “They signed an album deal with me from 2009 for a five-album deal and they’ve never released an album with me,” Spice says. “Even when I visited them with lawyers, they still don’t want to release me out of the contract.” The revelation was made public earlier this year when Spice sent a stern message to the label. The statement prompted a response from VP Records, which reassured fans that it’s working on “finalizing the album and all the necessary clearances.”

While Spice tackled that aspect of her career, she also took a stand in the face of another battle plaguing many people of color across the globe. On “Black Hypocrisy,” Spice poses a question of whether she'll find success with lighter skin. To ensure the message was not only heard but seen, Spice erased all photos from her Instagram account and shared a new look that had spectators confused or infuriated. With a blonde wig and fair skin, the artist sparked a conversation on colorism and the psychological effects it has on people who go through the process of lightening their skin to appear acceptable in society’s view.

 

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@nosworthycreations @makeupurmind876 @spexphotography Every thing happened so quickly but I promised them that when the truth was revealed about my “Makeup complexion” 🤪 that I would show my public gratitude to these two ladies who made it possible @nosworthycreations did the viral picture that you know with “coconut milk” and @makeupurmind876 did the other picture and also the official video for the #blackhypocrisy Thanks for bringing my idea to life, sorry for the multiple bottles of makeup that was wasted and thank you for patiently applying it to my skin for 4 hours each time. 🤣 photo shoot by @spexphotography @nosworthycreations @makeupurmind876

A post shared by Grace Hamilton (@spiceofficial) on Nov 14, 2018 at 3:00pm PST

To amplify her message, Spice endured a four-hour transformation that was made possible by “about 10 bottles of makeup.” The video for the song has amassed over 3.4 million views on YouTube and went straight to No. 1 on the iTunes Reggae Singles chart.

Although Spice pulled from previous experiences of people making her feel as if her skin is a detriment, it was the comment of an unnamed dark-skinned woman that inspired Spice to go full throttle with the song’s creation. According to Spice, the lyric “Dem seh mi black til mi shine, til mi look dirty” was said to her by that aforementioned woman, a statement Spice says rocked her core but encouraged her to keep fighting against the sentiment. The woman later apologized after hearing her words on the song, which Spice posted on Instagram.

“As many people who know Spice as dancehall queen I never normally attack social commentary or certain types of issues,” she says. “I’m normally a raunchy singer. So for me to come out with a picture and the reggae type of songs that I did was a shocker to the world. I also believe that’s what caused the great uproar because they were so shocked regarding the picture that I posted and also the message in the song because they did not expect that from Spice.”

Pulling a fast one on her worldwide fans is something Spice says she was not hesitant to go forth with even though her team members were reluctant to her idea out of fear of “negative feedback.” Despite the apprehension, Spice took on the role “fearlessly.”

“As a black woman myself, I know what I’ve been going through over the years and growing up as a child. Even in my adulthood, it still affected me. I wanted to use my platform to bring awareness to colorism because it is something that has been swept under the rug for years.” As a fortified entertainer, though, Spice hopes other black women across the world and out of the spotlight, “take the baton and run with me” to defeat colorism.

Spice says her “Black Hypocrisy” single “sets the bar so high” for her mixtape because of its early success, and given that achievement, her mission to educate listeners from her Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta fame on the “realness” of dancehall culture was a sure bet. Although melodies like "Gum" and "Big Horse" serve as a great introduction to the majority of Spice's past lyrical content, "Yass Goodie" and "Romantic Mood" present the foundation for which Spice stands tall on.

On the latter, Spice pays homage to her foremothers in the 1980s-90s era of dancehall and reggae. Patra, Lady Ann, Sister Charmaine, Dawn Penn, and Sister Nancy are a few of the names the entertainer lists when asked about the song's inspiration. To invoke their spirits on wax, Spice reached out to famed producer Clevie (part of the legendary production duo Steely and Clevie) to create this timeless sound.

"I told him I wanted the same exact track that those ladies used to record from, from back in the ‘80s of dancehall music, which was also one of the most popular riddims from out of dancehall, which is called the Giggi Riddim," Spice says. While Clevie met Spice's request with confusion because he had "a new riddim that was more 2018," Spice was adamant on re-imagining that popular base for her day one and new supporters. Some of the samples that are found within include Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)," "Romantic Call" with Patra and Yo-Yo, and the everlasting "Bam Bam" by Sister Nancy. For Spice, these women "paved the way so that I could have a role as queen of the dancehall right now.”

Even within this title, Spice hopes her leadership can help usher in the next class of women dancehall artists. In a "male-dominated business," she understands the hardships that women in the genre face, mainly because of dancehall's entrenched nature. "For women to tackle it and be on top of it or to be respected in the genre, she has to be aggressive, very hardcore delivery wise, she has to be on point," Spice says. "It's not a genre where any and anybody can come up and sing two ABC songs and people say, 'Yes, that's an artist,' or 'Yes, that's a dancehall artist.' It's very difficult, aggressive, hardcore genre and that's why most of the women have it so hard and difficult because people don't take them seriously."

In 1994, Billboard introduced its Reggae Albums chart. Only nine solo women within the genre have attained a No. 1 title, as reported by The Tropixs. On Aug. 6, 1994, Patra entered the listing with Queen Of The Pack. It spent 17 weeks at the top spot. The chart was later dominated by Bounty Killer, Shaggy, and Bob Marley & The Wailers until 1997 when Diana King's Think Like a Girl disrupted the boys' club. If a solo woman artist within the genre appeared on the chart from that point onward, they were found within compilation albums like Reggae Gold, Dancehall Xplosion, or Pure Reggae.

In 2014, Etana's I Rise peaked at the top for a week. Joss Stone also spent a month atop the roster with her first full-length reggae album Water For Your Soul in August 2015, before returning to No. 1 for a week in two separate months: once in September and the next in November. HIRIE's Wandering Soul took home the gold in 2016, while last year saw Queen Ifrica's Climb, and Tenelle's For The Lovers at No. 1 on separate occasions. Just this year, Hollie Cook's Vessel Of Love went No. 1 for two weeks in February, while Santigold's I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions landed up top in August 2018.

While the latter half of the 2010s saw a minor bout of consistency with women on the reggae charts, Spice is hopeful that the future of the genre, including dancehall, will be increasingly inclusive of its women creatives. "There's a lot of different women in dancehall right now, and I believe that each of them are representing themselves in a different way," Spice says. By clinging to her mission, Spice also believes if she remains authentic to the true essence of dancehall, then more doors will continue to be opened. "That's why I try to represent the genre itself in such a way where I stick to the roots and stick to the hardcore dancehall so that people can know that's really the genre and love it for itself."

To stay on the track of making history and showing the next generation that goals can be fulfilled if authenticity is your middle name, it's important (and a no-brainer) for Spice to celebrate her wins. Ahead of the mixtape's release, "Black Hypocrisy" went No. 1 on iTunes' Top Reggae Singles while Captured netted the top spot on the U.K. iTunes Reggae Albums chart. The listing is consistently dominated with classic melodies by Bob Marley & The Wailers so "for me that's a great accomplishment because Bob Marley is the greatest reggae icon to ever have walked the face of the Earth and for me, little Spice, to have taken him from the number one position is something that needs to be applauded," she says.

Black hypocrisy it number 1 on iTunes in the reggae category, thank you smurfets 💙 Link in my bio pic.twitter.com/jhZlD6MVnX

— Grace Hamilton (@spiceofficial) October 23, 2018

Another artist familiar with breaking a record once held by Marley is Buju Banton, who garnered the title for the most No. 1 singles in Jamaica in 1992. Banton’s 'Til Shiloh album (1995) recently rose to No. 1 on the iTunes Top Reggae Albums chart, a position previously held by Bob Marley & The Wailers' Legend (Remastered). Banton was released from a U.S. prison on Dec. 7 after serving seven of his 10-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm, and intent to sell cocaine. Immediately after his discharge, Banton boarded a plane to return to his family in Jamaica.

"Buju Banton is one of our reggae icons so his returning to Jamaica is going to be a well-celebrated moment," Spice says. "Despite the negative backlash that they have of him out there in the world, we are still going to love him as our own." Banton’s release also accompanies another momentous moment for Jamaica.

In late November, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added reggae to its list of global heritage treasures, a feat Spice believes will pave the way for the genre’s inhabitants to make history. “We as artists from Jamaica have been fighting for certain recognition with our genre,” she says. “Even dancehall itself, we also believe that hip-hop takes a bit from dancehall sometimes and we don’t get the credit for certain things. But it may take years but myself as an artist is here to do it a step at a time until it reaches where it should. This is an accomplishment for the genre.”

While hip-hop artists have found major success by recording the sounds of dancehall or reggae (Snoop Dogg-turned-Snoop Lion, The Fugees’ influential blend, even Drake circa Views From The 6), Spice utilized that tactic to inspire a domino effect of getting fans to spin more of her records. During her time on her first season of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, Spice welcomed a new wave of American advocates. To permanently reel them in, the 36-year-old performer made it her mission to record a melody on the mixtape titled “Move Fast” that can find a home on a twerk playlist but still amplify her dialect.

“We took the fact that they love hip-hop, and we used a hip-hop beat and gave them a sound that they’re used to but I would also catch back a little of my native language which is patois and introduce it to them a bit,” she says. “I’m trying to fuse the two so that they would understand more about my genre and maybe if they listen to ‘Move Fast’ they will hear my accent and go, ‘Oh, she’s from Jamaica, she’s in dancehall, let me listen to another track.’ Then they will listen to another track from the mixtape, which is authentic dancehall. Then they may fall in love with the genre.”

In the process of finding adoration for Spice’s beloved dancehall, she hopes that fans will also applaud her for the recent encounter of success, and the fact that she’s operating as an independent artist despite the fact that she’s signed to a major label. “I think for me I’m just humbled over the fact, especially that I did this on my own without my record company,” she says. “I’m really happy and excited and proud of myself for even believing in myself and pushing myself to reach to this limits without no management team or record company. I’m really humbled by my journey.”

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Saba's Rhymes Mean A Lot But John Walt Day Means More

“Act like ya’ll know, man. This a holiday,” boasted Frsh Waters, the co-founder of Chicago collective Pivot Gang and the opener of the second annual John Walt Day concert. It's Thanksgiving weekend and while families are gathered around the dinner table, lovers and supporters of Pivot Gang–comprised of Saba, MFn Melo, Waters, SqueakPIVO and a few more–filled the spaces of the city's Concord Music Hall to keep up a holiday tradition of their own.

With a newly-grown fro, Waters enters the stage with no introduction, a contrast from initial mic stand-clasping nervousness during the inaugural John Walt Day, launched at House of Blues Chicago in 2017. Walt Jr., the cousin of Saba, was killed last year and is the sole inspiration for the rapper's John Walt Foundation that brings the arts to children in the city.

The concert is a resounding tradition that his Pivot Gang brothers don’t plan to break anytime soon, with anticipation flooding the city each Thanksgiving weekend and a simultaneous celebration of Walt’s birthday on November 25th. The concert is just a piece of the loving puzzle Saba, Waters and the rest of the group created to keep his legacy alive.

With repeated crouching and soulful backing by Chicago band, The Oh’My’s, Waters regained balance after kneeling on an uneven speaker, referring to the crowd as "Church,” a christening that he echoes on the ending of "GPS" a feature from Saba’s well-received debut album Bucket List Project.

 

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Happy 26th @dinnerwithjohn Long Live my niqqa Johnny 📷 @bda.photo

A post shared by Westside Cat (@frshwaters) on Nov 25, 2018 at 11:37am PST

Saba may have dropped the stellar sophomore project, Care For Me this year, but the continuation of John Walt Day means more. Sold out for its second year in a row with 1,400 in attendance, Pivot Gang house-DJ Squeak Pivot blares "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest as the crowd multiplies before his booth. Avid fans gather in all creases of Concord Music Hall, especially on the second floor, where a merch stand resides exclusively for John Walt items. A haloed painting of Walt (or DinnerWithJohn as listeners knew him best), sits next to an assortment of buttons and t-shirts, as a guest brings a newly finished painting of Walt to the show.

Between sets, the crowd roared for cuts by Chicagoans Ravyn Lenae and Noname, who’s Room 25 track "Ace" is cut abruptly before MfnMelo takes the stage. With orchestration by Care For Me co-producer Dae Dae and harpist Yomi, Melo flowed through "Can’t Even Do It" and briefly spoke to the crowd about Thanksgiving, inviting attendees with leftover pies to meet him after the show.

Strutting to Ariana Grande's kiss-off anthem "thank u, next," The Plastics EP rapper Joseph Chilliams poses freely, cloaked in a light pink teddy bear coat. “I made this song because there aren’t a lot of black people [in Mean Girls]. I realized that the fourth time,” Chilliams joked before performing "Unfriendly Black Hotties."

Joined by four-year-old Snacks Pivot, John Walt’s mother Nachelle Pugh pinpoints her nephew’s curiosity of joining his older cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams as their miniature hype-man.

 

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John Walt Day It didn’t even feel real, so much love in the room. For the encore they usually yell the artist name or one more song or something like that. But on this night they yelled “LONG LIVE JOHN WALT”. I wish this could be everyday. I wish I could play you this new shit we just did. I wish you were here. Love you @dinnerwithjohn look at this coat” lmao 💗💗💗💗 📸 by my shooter @notryan_gosling

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Nov 26, 2018 at 3:29pm PST

“It’s like Walter jumped into his body and he’s coming back through this kid," she said of the toddler's enthusiasm. "He’s studied Saba, he’s studied Joseph, and he’ll say 'Auntie, can I use your phone?' So he’d use my phone and watch the boys’ videos on YouTube. Joseph is a person that the kids look at and say ‘He’s so fun,’ and [Snacks] wants to be like him. Everything that they do, [Snacks] is studying them.”

Pugh credits Young Chicago Authors for sparking her son’s musical pursuits, with guidance by poet Kevin Coval. “Kevin mentored him until the day he passed. I really love and respect someone that can just work with kids and give them a place to express themselves creatively,” Pugh said. “Working towards a goal of creating something that I know [Walt] wanted to do, and to help others in the same token, that gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

The stage then transformed into a resting kitchen with illuminating lights on the bottom of side-by-side counters, with Care for Me co-producers Dae Dae and Daoud behind their respective keyboards. Once settled, Saba rushed the stage to perform "Busy," with a special appearance by singer theMIND. The pulse of the venue throbbed as Saba took brief pauses to talk intimately to the crowd. “I lost a lot of people close to me,” he said. “A song like "Stoney" is such a celebration of life. It’s crazy to think how long ago that sh*t was. John was still alive.”

As Saba diverted into memories of Walt’s life, Nachelle recalled the album listening event for Care For Me. “Saba wouldn’t let me listen to it. He didn’t even tell me that he was working on it until it got really close [to the album’s release]," she said. "Then, he warned me about "Prom/King." I think he was thinking about letting me listen to it by myself at first, but then he thought about it like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do that while she’s by herself, let me just let her listen to it while she’s with everybody else.’ That was an easier way to break it to me, so I wouldn’t really break down.”

Saba capered into "Prom/King," but performing the heart-tugging ode to Walt was a first, even after embarking on his 2018 Care For Me tour.

“I didn’t know he was gonna do that. I didn’t think that he’d ever be able to do that. I don’t think he thought he’d be able to do that,” Pugh explained. “I don’t know if anybody captured the expressions, but I think he was in tears and he was just fighting through it. We went through this fight together on the day we found out what happened with Walt. When he got finished, he sat down, turned around and he looked at me and I’m like 'We did it.'”

Even with "Prom/King" being the most grief-stricken track on Care For Me, Nachelle revealed that the most poignant song about her son was "Heaven All Around Me," realizing the message just months after the album’s release. “I was like, 'Walter wrote that song through Saba,' she said. "That’s the song that gets me the most off Care For Me. I don’t think [Saba] intentionally did so, but it just put so much power behind "Prom/King" because you see what happened. He told a story.”

The storytelling of Walt’s legacy was fulfilled throughout John Walt Day, from Joseph Chilliams doing a comedic, warbled rendition of "Ordinary People," Walt’s favorite song to play on the aux cord, to the entire Pivot Gang reuniting to perform their ensemble track "Blood" for the first time. Walt’s presence was unwavering, with remaining Pivot Gang members continuing to carry his eternal flame.

“This year’s show, the passion was a little bit stronger, because at the time we did last year’s show, I think we were all still in denial, like 'We’re gonna wake up from this dream’ type of thing.' Pugh said. “I think we accepted the fact that [Walt’s] not coming back. They wanted to go as hard as possible because they were doing this for him.”

 

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JOHN WALT DAY was so beautiful. We gotta find a bigger venue for next year. I made so many new friends. Pivot tape up next 💪🏽🔥

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Dec 1, 2018 at 5:15pm PST

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