15th Annual Art For Life Gala Hosted by Russell and Danny Simmons - Program & Dinner 15th Annual Art For Life Gala Hosted by Russell and Danny Simmons - Program & Dinner
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Record Executive Jason Flom Shines A Light On The Falsely Incarcerated, One Podcast At A Time

Flom also highlights the detrimental cycle of populating private prisons, and how we can hold the criminal justice system accountable for wrongful convictions.

For Jason Flom, the process of proving an incarcerated person's innocence is an around the clock task. Before the beginning of this interview, the Lava Records CEO took a call from a prisoner named Jon-Adrian "JJ" Velazquez, who was sentenced to 25 years in Sing-Sing Prison for murder. According to a 2014 NBC report, Velazquez – who has been detained since 1998 –pleaded with the courts to grant him another trial where he'll present evidence that could solidify his innocence.

His story and a number of others who're fighting to prove their guiltlessness are highlighted on Flom's weekly podcast titled Wrongful Conviction. Through phone or in person interviews, Flom shines a light on a handful of prisoners' stories of how being framed by law enforcement or being in the wrong place at the wrong time altered the course of their lives, and how they plan to make up for stolen time once they're released.

Most of these cases are also intertwined with the quarter of a century old organization, Innocence Project. Through DNA evidence, the entity seeks to free those who've been the subject of false convictions and help them adapt to the demands of society after enduring lengthy sentences. "Exonerating somebody is a herculean task, even though it’s just one person," Flom said. "But we try to use exonerations to drive changes in policy."

Below, Flom discusses the detrimental cycle of populating private prisons, and how we can hold the criminal justice system accountable for wrongful convictions.

What factors play into a wrongful conviction?
Jason Flom: There are a lot of different causes of wrongful convictions, some of the most common ones are false confessions, which are shockingly common and overwhelmingly powerful when a jury hears your confession. They don’t care about anything else. There are cases where DNA proves the person didn’t do it. Police and prosecutorial misconduct, and Brady violations are very common where we find that prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence, which is everybody that watches TV knows you can’t do that, but they do it. Then there’s eyewitness misidentification which is the most common cause of wrongful convictions because there are so many problems with eyewitness identification including the fact that when you witness a crime your judgment gets so screwy because your adrenaline gets so elevated. You end up wanting to help solve the crime, but there’s all these pressures. Then there are things that relate to eyewitness identification like what we call double blind. That means the police officer conducting the interrogation must not know who the suspect is so they can’t lead you in a certain direction whether consciously or subconsciously.

The way mug shots are viewed is important and another cause of wrongful convictions because people should only see one mug shot at a time. When you see multiple ones on a page it messes up your perception or your memory. And then forensics. We’ve shown that there’s been so many examples of so-called experts testifying as to forensic evidence, and either lying or being wrong. There’s the fact that most people who are arrested and brought to trial are represented by public defenders. There are a lot of very good public defenders, but every one of them are overworked, underpaid and understaffed. If anybody hasn’t seen that movie Gideon’s Army, I recommend it. It really gives you an idea of how bad that problem really is. You really don’t have much of a chance once the system gets you. If you’re poor, you have a real problem.

How do you receive these cases?
We have an in-take department and we receive approximately 200 letters a month from people who need our help whether it’s an inmate or a family member, typically of an inmate. We have people who are trained to review those letters and try to determine if the claims of innocence have some veracity. Then we have to find out whether there’s DNA, if we decide to move forward to determine whether there’s DNA in the case, because the Innocence Project works on DNA. It’s a whole process and as you can imagine it’s something that we take extremely seriously.

There are four tent-poles that the Innocence Project aims to tackle: Exonerate, Improve, Reform, Support. Which one takes the most legwork to accomplish?
Exonerating somebody is a herculean task, even though it’s just one person, but we try to use exonerations to drive changes in policy. If we have somebody convicted, for instance, on bite mark evidence, which recently we’ve proven is complete nonsense. There’s no such thing as bite mark evidence. There’s nobody alive that can tell if you bit somebody, they can’t tell whether it was you or anybody else. It’s impossible. It’s this whole field of forensic odontology. It’s a joke as it relates to these cases. The reason that forensic odontology even exists is because in cases of disasters like an earthquake or the collapse of a building where somebody is completely unrecognizable, they take your whole set of teeth and then they compare it to your dental records. But when you bite somebody or something, they only use a couple of teeth and you’re biting on an imperfect surface, and leaving an odd mark. There’s no way to compare that. It doesn’t work. We’ve taken cases with bite marks, and after exonerating somebody who's served decades in prison, we will then go to lawmakers and try to have the laws changed so that it’s no longer a type of evidence that’s admissible in court. None of these things are easy, I don’t know which one is the hardest. Reforms are probably the hardest because you have to convince a lot of people, whether on the state or federal level.

Do you think this high rate of wrongful convictions has something to do with the monetary aspect of private prisons?
That’s one of the uniquely American tragedies. I don’t know of any other country where they have private prisons. It goes back to, I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. She shows in very straightforward terms how it’s a new form of slavery because after slavery was outlawed, it wasn’t for convicts. They began filling the prisons with poor black people that they would pick up on the street for any reason; not having a job, not carrying an ID, and put them in prison. It still goes on to this day to an extent. That’s why Ferguson erupted, not just because of [Mike Brown's] death, which was terrible, but because they’ve finally had enough. Or even when L.A. erupted, they had enough of being arrested for not mowing their lawn the right way or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk and ending up in jail. There is a profit motive because a lot of the mainstream products that people who are reading this use probably everyday are made by prisoners who are getting paid 19 cents an hour or nothing. In some places they make you work for nothing and if you refuse they take away your privileges; you’re not going to have any visits, you’re not going to have this or that. It’s like the few privileges that you do have when you’re in the system they take away. It’s a terrible situation all the way around. [Fyodor] Dostoevsky says "You can judge a society by the quality of their prisons." I’m paraphrasing, but here it’s dreadful. They are violent, scary, terrible places that have very little focus on rehabilitation. It’s all about dehumanization and punishment.

You really don’t have much of a chance once the system gets you. If you’re poor, you have a real problem. ~ Jason Flom

The city recently worked to repeal solitary confinement for minors, I think ages 16-21. It’s mind-boggling to think a young person can be placed in a box without food or attention for long periods of time, so I agree with the dehumanization aspect of people, especially in New York.
You think New York state would be ahead of the curve a little bit, but it happens everywhere. There’s that whole raise the age thing going on now. That’s what happened to Kalief Browder, right? How do you not go insane, especially if you’re innocent like he was. Your brain hasn’t even developed yet, and like you said, stuck in that tiny box. It’s unimaginable to me. I often say that if another society, another country treated our citizens the way we do, we would invade them. We would be in there with tanks, planes and bombs and say, ‘You’re not going to treat our people like that.’ But we do it. Why? It doesn’t make any sense. The weird thing is what they realized in Western Europe is that the people eventually get out of prison. When they do, they have to live next door to somebody and if you don’t give them a chance to get it back together, because you’ve either driven them insane or not provided them with any rehabilitation of any kind and there’s so many laws which are designed to discriminate, then what are we doing? The system is set up to send them back to prison. Meanwhile, all of that costs the taxpayers money. It makes money for corporations to cost the taxpayers money.

Especially the mental issues placed upon these people who didn’t have any mental health issues prior to being incarcerated.
Or if they do have mental health issues, they get worse while they’re in.

Once these formerly incarcerated people are released, what steps are taken to help them blend back into society?
They have so many needs when they get out. They have to get an ID, a driver’s license. Ironically when a guilty person serves their sentence and they’re released, they get a parole officer who, at least in theory, is going to help them with certain needs, certain counseling and they can help them with trying to find a job, or a place to live, or temporary housing. But if you’re innocent you get nothing. You may get compensated, you may not. Even if you do it’s going to take a long time to get that money. You’re just out like, ‘Now what do I do?’ Everything from learning how to write a resume to figuring out transportation to getting a phone. For some of these people when they went in, there were no cell phones, there was no ATM card. It’s nuts. The needs are many and we try to help as much as we can.

Have you had a case where the outside world's demands became too heavy for an exoneree? That they might end up back in jail?
It has happened very infrequently. I only know of one case in which that happened. Given a second chance, they try to make the most out of it. There have been people who’ve been framed twice, like Steven Avery. There was one guy who was on my podcast, Derrick Hamilton, who was framed twice in Brooklyn for murder. He was released, the charges were overturned in the first case after six years. Then the corrupt detective at time, Louis Scarcella, didn’t like the fact that he’d been released on the first one, so he framed him again and got him the second time as well. He served 20 years on the second one before he got himself out by becoming a fantastic jailhouse lawyer.

Which case has been the hardest, whether that's mentally or emotionally, to turn into a success story?
I’m not a lawyer, so for the lawyers I know it’s even more stressful because they’re in there day to day. I’m out raising money and going to board meetings and doing the podcast and working on post exoneration stuff. One of the most frustrating cases of the people who’ve gotten out would be a guy named Tony Wright who was on my podcast the first season. Tony was a guy who was wrongfully convicted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania of raping, sodomizing and stabbing to death a 77-year-old woman. He was framed by the cops and after he was in prison for 22-and-a-half years, we were able to prove with DNA that not only he didn’t do it, but we were able to prove who did do it which was an interesting thing too because in about half of the cases in which we prove the innocence of the person who was convicted, we were also able to show the authorities who was the real perpetrator who is often already in prison for something else they did. Tony’s case was particularly unusual because after 22-and-a half-years we proved with DNA that he didn’t do it, we proved who the real killer was and the cops refused to let him out anyway. Normally at that point they’d back off, but in this case they came up with a new theory that was something completely crazy.

They said this crackhead who was the actual killer, whose DNA was found on and in her body, they said, "What must’ve happened was that Tony must’ve raped and murdered her, and then left the door open and then the crackhead just wandered in and also raped her." Think about that. Were there aliens there? I mean are you daft? Of course not, it’s the dumbest thing you heard. They tried him again. It took two-and-a-half years to get to a new trial. There he was sitting in prison with DNA that proved that he was innocent. The new trial lasted two-and-a-half weeks. The jury deliberated for five minutes. They came out and they cried while they read the verdict not guilty on all charges and the prosecutor still says he’s guilty. That’s just one that sticks in my mind. It’s not the only one of those where we produce DNA evidence and the prosecutor still says they’re guilty, which is of course impossible, but that one I think caused a lot of heartache. We were so happy when he got out. He’s such a lovely guy. If you hear him on the podcast he has such a positive attitude. That’s the craziest thing. The exonerees, every one of them has this amazingly positive, joyful, graceful approach to life that it's like, "How did you get there?" I tell them I would be in a tower with a rifle trying to figure out who did this to me and take them out. They say, "I’m not going to be bitter and waste my time being bitter. I don’t have time for that stuff." And you’re like, ‘Wow, what the f**k?’

With stories like Kalief Browder's reaching millions of viewers across the globe, do you think this will spark serious talks or strategies to combat injustices within the criminal justice system?
That’s a good question and I think the answer has to be yes. I think it’s already happening. We’re seeing people on the left and the right, less on the right, but there are people on the right in positions of power who are now going, "Hey, this has to change, every aspect of mass incarceration, wrongful convictions." Mass incarceration, if you’re really conservative, that’s gotta look to you like big government. Nobody locks people up the way we do, nobody ever has. We have the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the history of the world, per capita. Absolutely, the momentum is building a lot and unfortunately with this new administration we’re going to see backwards progress on a federal level, but on the state level we’ll continue to see progress. There’s going to be ups and downs. Strangely enough, California passed a referendum in the last election speeding up the death penalty and basically eliminating most avenues of appeal. In Nebraska, they didn’t repeal the death penalty law there. They had, but then they reversed it. But we’re seeing a lot of momentum in a lot of different areas of criminal justice reform, not just innocence.

Who holds the criminal justice system accountable when cases like Kalief Browder's occurs? Or how can we hold the system accountable for these wrongful convictions?
I’m glad you asked. The most important thing that everybody who’s reading this interview can do is vote. When I say vote, that doesn’t mean once every four years. That means you have to vote in the district attorney races because recently we’ve seen in Chicago, that horrible prosecutor who refused to prosecute the cops in the LaQuan McDonald case, was voted out of office. You know who’s in now? I think her name is Kim Foxx, a black woman. Incredible! And not only is she a black woman, which is great, because I think 95 percent of the prosecutors in this country are white male so diversity is essential, but more importantly she’s a bada**. She’s going to shake s**t up.

Anybody in Chicago who doesn’t think that their vote mattered, watch the difference. It’s going to effect so many people. The same thing happened in Cleveland after the Tamir Rice incident. People finally got off their asses and said, "F**k it, we’re voting this guy out. He’s not going to prosecute the cops." The most important actors in the whole scene are the prosecutors and what has to happen is they have to be held accountable. If we do that, then you’re going to see real change because they have all the power. Defense attorneys have no power. Judges have very limited power. Prosecutors have all the power. That’s the most important thing you can do. Don’t think your vote doesn’t matter. A lot of district attorney races, if you’re in a small town, that race could be decided by one vote. It’s not even unlikely. There’s so few people voting in those races. Your vote is really important in those races, and you’ve got to vote for progressive DA’s. That’s how you hold these people accountable.

Listen to "Wrongful Conviction" podcast's previous episodes here, and check out the latest installment below.

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Katie Spoleti

How Dinah Jane Shed Her Pop Coating And Bloomed Into An R&B Butterfly

With just 21 years around the sun, Dinah Jane has accomplished more than most. Her star initially rose alongside her pop sisters Fifth Harmony in her teens but in between chart-topping hits like "Work From Home" or "Worth It" was a longing for something more.

The "more" arrived this spring in the form of her debut collection, Dinah Jane 1, three tracks that play to her power vocals and confident nature. Leading single "Heard It Before" gives listeners the feels of the aughts with the help of producer extraordinaire, J. R. Rotem. Jane's accompanying tracks like "Pass Me By" and "Fix it" are just as alluring given her honey coated vocals. Instead of jumping from genre to genre, the songs are in the vein of Jane's R&B language, a move that transpired after a reflection into her musical identity.

The journey included experimentation with her first solo effort, "Bottled Up" with Ty Dolla $ign and Marc E. Bassey. The song was a bop by nature due to its similarity to her work in Fifth Harmony, which left Jane determined to find her sound.

"Being a solo artist now made it hard to define who I was because I was singing so many different styles before," Jane tells VIBE. "I had to take time for me to really cope and understand what it is that I really want to come out as my true identity. When I dropped my first record "Bottled Up" it was more me transitioning from Fifth Harmony to myself, I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be."

After a session with a producer in Atlanta, Jane arrived at the realization that the artists in her phone (Monica, Mariah Carey), was a sign for her to dig up her soulful roots. It's hard to deny Jane's vocals helped to build her former group and now, her own career.

"The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest," Jane said. "I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. I was always afraid to portray them as something that people didn't know about and so my thing is like, 'Oh, I don't want them to think of my family like this or my friend who's not my friend right now.' I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic, real and raw I have to be honest not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good."

With a new attitude and direction, Jane is ready to fly above her worries. Check out our chat with the singer-songwriter below.

***

VIBE: When you were putting your three-pack together, what was going through your head? Was there a particular sound or moment you wanted to catch?

Dinah Jane: It was more like a certain direction. I felt like there was a part of me that had not been exposed yet as far as style. I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be. I started listening back to records where I was like, 'Wow, this is something that I wish was mine.' Some of Monica's records, Faith Evans or Mariah Carey, by the way, she followed me on Instagram [Laughs].

Congratulations!

She followed me on Instagram so I kind of got that verification that I should definitely do R&B. Those are artists that I've always been inspired by. I remember I went back to when I did my first audition on X Factor, and I said, "Who is that I want to sing and showcase my talent?" It was Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy."

I felt like if this is a perfect time for me to throw in a bowl of my favorite artists that I've always looked up to and mesh it into who I am now. When I did "Fix It," I felt like it was so organic for me to go that direction and lean towards, so, when that happened the song became what it is now. I love the message behind it, I didn't realize it would empower so many people.

"Fix It" is actually my favorite out of the three. You just referenced your identity. Do you know what that is now? Or is that sonically or personally?

I think more so sonically, that's where I was lost the most because I had to put myself in a drawer for seven years. Now that I'm here, being a solo artist like I said, I was lost. Sonically I had to redefine who Dinah Jane was this whole time. I remember being in a session in Atlanta and this guy at the time asked me, "Who do you have on your phone? Let's look through it."

He's going through my phone and it's all R&B, not even that much pop, just singers from back then. And he's just like, "I was not expecting this, I thought you'd be the hype girl listening to all trap music." I have that personality trust me, but musically this is me. That clicked in my head that I was heading somewhere else and I needed to jump back to my old ways.

I love that. "Heard It All Before" has gotten so much love from your fans. I know you're not supposed to look at the comments but one that stood out was "I love this sound, leave pop alone." Do you ever feel trapped in one genre since you started within the pop bubble? 

It's funny that you say that. I feel like people or fans they kind of want to box you into who they think you are. I was telling someone, my fans they sometimes think they know me better than I know myself and it's kind of scary. There are times where I'm like, "No I don't have to be one way." It's crazy cause when I go to the studio I feel like I can be so versatile. I can do R&B easy but there are sometimes where I want to do those pop records, "Always Be My Baby" is that pop record to me and some people are good with it, some aren't but I think it just comes with your fanbase.

For me, they know my potential, honestly, they saw me on X Factor or even my YouTube days when I was 11 or 12 years old. They're like, "No Dinah, this is you, this is you, I want you to keep doing more of these." Eventually, I'll want to do some other things as well. But as of right now, it's truly R&B.

When it comes to creating you're always challenging yourself. What were some of the challenges that you've been facing this year while making music?

The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest. I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. It's always been my challenge and I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic and real and raw I have to be honest to myself as well, not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good. My Mom always told me, "You've got to be real with yourself."

For sure. All three of these songs are super straightforward. What was it about keeping that energy while you were making these songs?

I was just trying to balance it. Like I said it was the most challenging part balancing that and I feel like with "Heard It All Before," it was the most fun, relatable song to write because my best friend was going through something. I was like "What?! He said what?!" We were literally having a full on group chat about it. When I did the music video, I wanted it to be about the situation that I was in with my girl. We were like, "You know what we've heard that all before." I just want to make this bundle relatable, sexy but then also swaggy and just not try so hard. So, when we put these three songs together, it felt so organic and true to who I was.

Even in the video, you exude so much confidence. What does confidence mean to you?

I think it's self-love. When you truly love yourself, you can see it in your face. You can see it in the glow and the energy you're giving to people. I wasn't always this confident, I would definitely say I was never this confident but, thanks to my mom, she always expressed that to me.

She said, "Dinah, I know you don't feel that beautiful today but you need to pick on the little things that matter. What's your favorite feature? Your lips. What's your favorite outfit you got going on? Pay attention to your best qualities other than that one negative thing you're picking on."

The confidence was never there but when you have people that are around you always encouraging you to love yourself and realizing your truth and worth, that's when the confidence kicks in. It's not something that's overnight, it takes time. It took years for me to realize that. Like I said, you have to surround yourself by honest, real people who can definitely make you see what you're not seeing.

Facts. Have you become that vessel for your friends as well? Like passing all of that on. Your mom passed it to you, you pass it to your friends, are you that person?

Yeah, it's like a telephone game. I have a younger sister who's 17 and she's always been insecure about her weight or her breakouts and I'm like, "You're a teenager, you're supposed to go through that phase. If I went through that you've got to go through it too."

In a way, I have to guide her through the stages. I was just talking to her last night and she's telling me about her friends and how she feels like she doesn't fit in, or certain cousins where she feels like she has to be a certain way. I was like, "Don't be a certain way, the way you carry yourself will vibrate and you will be so much more vibrant, it'll grasp more onto you. Just be your true self, you don't have to be anything else. I know who you are and you know who you are."

I feel like kind of being that older sister I feel like her mom sometimes. So I always feel this responsibility that she always feels 100.

What are some other plans you have for yourself, with your music for the year?

This is the first bundle. People wanted it to be named an EP but I was like, "Nah. It cannot be an EP because an EP is at least five to seven songs top."

This bundle is like a mini-project, it's the anticipation for the actual album. So, I want you to keep getting the feel of who I am, keep giving you these sneak peeks and then boom, hit you with the album. That's in the works, we'll see what happens. That's what we say now but sometimes things change, so don't get too excited.

Have you've been working with anybody? Any featured artists or any producers who are really understanding of who you are as an artist?

As far as features, I have one and then I'm working on another one.

So you can't say who they are?

I can't say. As far as producers and writers, J.R. Rotem is literally my dog. We walked into the studio and all of his plaques are all over the wall, plastered everywhere and we were like, "We get it, you're a legend. You're going to make me a legend," is what I felt in that room. I feel this great connection with him where we can be friends but also have that chemistry musically where he can connect with me instantly.

I love how we did  "Fix It," he brought out all of the live instruments and he made it feel like you were actually on stage, he made it feel bigger than what it was. So, I give him so many props for that because I've never felt that way in a session where I felt like I was onstage and it was just me by myself, no one else, well of course with a whole a** band, but I just felt the topic and the song, the musicality behind it is what meshed so well because of him. He is my dog for sure and my therapist because if it weren't for him this song would have not been made.

Stream Dinah Jane 1 below.

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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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Mike Coppola

The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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