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Erik Voake

Polly A Is A Ghetto Gold Queen Living A 'Ghetto Gold Dream'

Ahead of her 'Ghetto Gold Dream' EP release, VIBE gets acquainted with the rising singer-songwriter.

Polly A made the decision to leave home. Like any human being looking to create a better life or follow that gut-tugging dream, the singer packed her bags and made a move into a new world of possibilities. That world of opportunity was the East coast mecca, New York City. But packing her bags and booking a one way ticket from the Midwestern city of Milwaukee to the "Concrete Jungle" wasn't the route she wanted to take. Born Meleni Smith and fresh out of high school, the then matured teen applied to numerous universities and landed an acceptance letter from the Uptown-planted ivy league, Columbia University.

From that point on, Polly hit the ground running. She would record music and work on her artistry in between class, perform in underground train cars and share her vocal gift with anyone willing to listen. “I literally started selling the demo I recorded for class in Times Square,” she laughs. “I’d sing on the train. It was that story of a real New York artist struggling to have anyone listen!”

She would soon catch the ears of Columbia Records and land a record deal. After she waited for the solo debut that never came and parted ways with the music company, the songwriter took matters into her own hand and continued to work on her music making craft. She would eventually place songs on projects by the likes of Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez, then co-wrote J. Cole's gold-certified record “Crooked Smile.” Although these accomplishments were career milestones, the "Nature" singer wanted to step out and pursue her solo career. “I love songwriting, but I don’t want to do it forever,” she admits. And focusing on self is just want she has set out to do.

With a new label home at Adam Levine's 222 Records and her first single and EP title track, “Ghetto Gold Dream,” out for the world to hear, Smith is ready to drop a new EP. VIBE had the chance to chat with the Los Angeles-based artist in the Toyota Music Den at Lollapalooza 2016 to talk about her challenging journey, music accomplishments and more.

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VIBE: Who is Polly A and what does she stand for?
Polly A: Polly A sort of evolved. It's kind of like a Phoenix rising. You get your heart broken enough times and then you realize it and redefine what love means to you. Polly A is a love movement. It's short for "polyamorous," but not in the multiple sex partners kind of way. People who are familiar with that word tend to make it about that, but for me it's a love movement. I love everyone and I've redefined what society tells you that love is. I feel like a lot of people put themselves through traumatic experiences because they're looking for this one thing not realizing that love is everywhere and love can be found in all of us. We are all a reflection of each other.

So what's the difference between Meleni (your birth name) and Polly?
Meleni was a lot more afraid of success, failure, heartbreak and the future. Polly A abandoned all fear and she embraced the moment and embraced all things that are. She realizes that all of these experiences make her who she is and they are all necessary so that she can become the person she has envisioned herself to become.

You sing from a very deep, soulful place. When would you say that seed of soul was planted?
I've always considered myself to be a soul singer. All my heroes, all my music master teachers are soul singers. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, and Prince were all my teachers. Soul music has always been a huge part of my life. I didn't really grow up with soul music around me. My mom is Jamaican, so she really didn't play that as much. But in my teenage years, I literally studied it on my own. I dove in and soul music is what spoke to me. It was the foundation for the path that I was going to go on musically.

You went to college at a prestigious. From there, you tried to get into the music game whichever way you could. How did you stay motivated? What gave you the fuel to continue going?
It was a couple of things. The main one being that you feel like this is the only thing that you know how to do really well and there is no second choice because this is the only thing that gets me out of bed every morning. If I'm sad, I become happy and my heart literally moves so me and music will always have a strong connection. I lost my voice for six months. I had a crazy vocal chord disorder that is a very rare situation. I couldn't sing or speak for six months. It's also a condition where you don't know if you're going to get your voice back.

What's the name of the condition?
It's called vocal chord paralysis (if you don't get it back) and vocal chord paresis (if you do get it back). The catch is they can't diagnose which one it is until you get your voice back. There's no cure, so it's just like a waiting game while you're going through it and it was the biggest test that I've ever gone through in life. During those six months, I realized that this is my calling. I heard my voice for the first time (not literally) and I never gave myself enough credit for having a good singing voice. I would say that I was a good writer, but I sing alright. I also said to myself, 'Wow, this is God's way of showing me myself.' Seeing that I'm taking this for granted and recognizing that for the first time made understand the gift that I have. I realized that there's so many people who say that they don't have the ability to sing and they say that they want to sing but their voice isn't allowing them to. Throughout my whole life, I could sing. I used to think that anybody could sing. But when I didn't have my voice I thought, 'Oh my God, I can sing!' It was God yelling at me and telling me, 'Don't ever tell me that it isn't good enough. Don't ever tell me that you don't want to do this. I chose you to do this.'

You kept the faith going...
I kept the faith. I kept the faith. That moment was the turning point. I said I don't care if I'm doing wedding gigs, whatever place my voice takes me, I'm going to take that opportunity because I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be sharing this voice with everyone.

You've worked behind the scenes as a songwriter for the likes of Alicia Keys, J. Cole and more. Are you still doing that?
Oh yeah for sure! I know a lot of people try to separate the two. It's either you're a singer or a songwriter, but most of us are both. We are constantly creating and constantly in the studio. That's where we thrive. A lot of it is just the homies. I have a lot of artists friends who are doing their thing too and putting out albums independently. It just ends up being a kickback more than just work, so that's where I hangout. Some people go to the clubs, but I hang out at the studio and create.

If you could choose three artists to work in the studio with, who would they be?
Frank Ocean, because he is so incredible and I'm inspired by him. Andre 3000. And she's not really making music like that anymore, but I love Fiona Apple. She's one of my inspirations as a songwriter.

Let's talk about the inspiration behind your single, "Ghetto Gold Dream."
When I went to the studio, I was frustrated. It was really just a reaction to feeling sideswiped by people who you thought were genuine and it turns out their not. And then the phrase "Ghetto Gold Dream" just came to me. It's a symbol of, I'm not trying to drop 2,000 dollars but I'm still trying to look fly. I can be fly without being rich. I can be royalty without having the bank account of a royal person. It's a song about triumph. Throughout all of these distractions, people hating on you and thinking your not going to go anywhere, because of where you come from. Even your own inner hater, telling you stuff, it's like I'm going to do this. I'm going to live the life that I envisioned and I don't care who has an opinion about it. As long as this is in my head, I can achieve it. It sounds cliché but it all starts in your head. The song is a testament to that whole idea.

Describe your music in three words.
Honest, Mash-Up, and Pure.

So what's next for you? Will we get a new album?
The album is pretty much done. The EP will be coming out at the end of the month. The album and EP will be called GGD because its a metaphor for my whole journey and the video just came out a week ago and we just got our firsr offer for a tour. Things are moving and people are getting acquainted with the music day by day. As long as I'm in the race.

Random, what makes you happy?
I make myself happy. (Laughs) I say that to say that happiness is internal, not external. If you are looking for happiness externally, then you've already messed up. I think everyday I wake up I thank God for the small mercies. I thank God that I have two arms that work, my lungs work and my heart works. It grounds me and I remind myself that being alive is a blessing.

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Polly A's EP Ghetto Gold Dream is set to drop on Friday, August 26. In the meantime, stream her latest Gabe Lambirth-produced single, "Fire Fallin," a soulful ballad about a special love. Visit Iampollya.com for more.

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Uzo Aduba, Debra Lee And More Honor Nelson Mandela's Life And Legacy

I was 5-years-old when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. It would be another 20 years or so before I learned what got him there. Mandela was a distant figure throughout my youth, but I knew he was deserving of respect. His salt-and-pepper hair, his slow yet deliberate walk and his booming voice made sweet by his African lilt informed me, even as a child, he wasn't just some guy.

Growing up in Queens in the 90s, however, made South Africa seem about as distant as Saturn. All the country's woes and its wins wasn't a concern for a shy kid, turned boy-obsessed teenager. "Whatever's going on in South Africa is South Africa's business," I foolishly said to my teenage self.

But as I got older, and injustices became too blatant to ignore, pieces of Mandela's teaching orbited their way from my peripheral to my direct line of sight.

Then, in 2013, when news outlets reported on Mandela's touch-and-go health I learned of his lofty sacrifices, his world-changing accomplishments, and grace made more resolute with his warm smile. During his last year of life, I understood Mandela was actually more than any of us could imagine.

To honor the 25th anniversary of the first Democratic election in South Africa, Mandela's legacy organizations hosted a luncheon at Washington, D.C's Marriott International Hotel. The affair, which celebrated Mandela's becoming the first black president in South Africa, was attended by dignitaries, entertainers, guests and all those inspired by South Africa's resilient leader.

BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee opened the two-hour event and assured everyone it's her mission as a Mariott board member to execute all of Mandela's ideals.

“I lead the company’s committee to ensure excellence in diversity and inclusion Globally. #LoveTravels – the cornerstone of our purpose-driven marketing program – represents our celebration and support of inclusion, equality, peace and human rights and we cannot think of anyone who embodies these values more than Nelson Mandela.”

Orange Is The New Black's Uzo Aduba took to the stage following Lee's welcoming statements. The Emmy-award winning actress and gifted orator delivered a passionate rendition of Mandela's May 10, 1994 inauguration speech.

"Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all."

Aduba, 38, continued, "We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil."

After guests dined, Graça Machel, stateswoman, activist and Mandela's widow spoke. Donning a small blonde Afro, a pink silk scarf and a navy blue knee-length dress, Machel expressed her appreciation to all those who continue to champion her late husband's work and even quipped about her love for leaders.

Aduba returned to the stage this time as a moderator leading an intimate conversation with representatives from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela's Children Fund, and the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, guests were treated to live entertainment from Grammy-award nominated singer-songwriters, Chloe X Halle.

Two hours wasn't enough time to appreciate Mandela's legacy or even come to a full understanding of his life, but guests left thankful, full and gracious to have spent the afternoon honoring a man who showed the world, "It only seems impossible until it's done."

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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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