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Marjua Estevez

From BIA To Vakeró: Rising Latino Artists Speak On SXSW

Before hitting the stage on Friday night (March 17), the artists had plenty to reflect on concerning career trajectories…

South by Southwest 2017 came and went with its annual conglomerate of conferences, interactive media, film and music showcases in Austin, Texas. VIBE Viva and Mayimba Music's cultural offering saw a vibrant hodgepodge of global superstars and up-and-comers take the stage at Malverde, a chic nightspot trimmed with wood and greenery, nestled atop La Condesa in the 2nd Street District.

From Victoria La Mala to Vakeró to BIA, our performers lineup was equal parts Afro-Caribbean, tropical urbano, R&B and hip-hop. Which left an intimate crowd of fans and the uninitiated alike drenched in whiskey-induced sweat (props to Jack Daniel's).

Before hitting the stage on Friday night (March 17), seven artists had plenty to reflect on concerning career trajectories, crossing over (or not) and what it means to move in the world as a Latino recording artist today—this, among many other themes. For starters, here's what each had to say about their experience at SXSW, many of which are a first.

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I got my second show ever here at SXSW last year, and I still don't believe it. To me, it's unreal, and I don't know where to start saying thank you because people are accepting my music in ways that I never thought that it was going to be accepted. Every time someone new meets me, it's like a new door [opens]. I feel like South is that. South is like meeting new people that don't know me and even though they don't know me, they want to meet me and hear my music and want to know what I do. Every time I meet someone, it's a new door that I'm opening. —Audri Nix, singer-rapper from Puerto Rico

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This is my first SXSW show—first show in Texas, period. Here, the people are all about the music. Everywhere I go, music seems to be a really big deal, and that's what I love most about it here. Last night, I got to play with El Morenito, Chicano Batman and La Fame. I felt the pressure, too, to perform my best, no matter if it's for a big or small crowd. My goal was to leave the people with a big impression, wanting more, and knowing what my music is about. That's the mentality that I came here with, hoping that all this will lead to bigger and better things, musically. I gained a lot of fans here in Texas. —Vakeró, rapper and songwriter from the Dominican Republic

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This is my first SXSW, so I'm super excited. I've been building my sound, my energy by myself, and trying out a lot of things. Throwing away a lot of things, and this is the thing that feels the most organic to me at the moment. [My new] set-up. I haven't actually played [at SXSW] yet with these [new] guys, but I've played with them the longest, and it feels the best, so I just want the people here to feel what I feel. —STELLA, singer-songwriter from San Francisco

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My experience has been incredible, this is my first time at SXSW. I am really grateful to see how the city has embraced me with open arms. For me it's a very special moment to have this kind of opportunity, because as a female in regional Mexican music – as a female in the world – it's tough. It makes me so happy to see that little by little, we are knocking down those doors, and I think that being here tonight is going to further help me do that. —La Mala, singer from Mexico City

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This time around, at SXSW, I would say more people know who I am, and I feel more people know the music. I'm going to leave SXSW with something fresh. I'm going to leave them with something new. I want women to see me and feel like, "Yes, she's doing it for us," and I want Latinos to see me and feel like, "Yes, she's doing something for us." Like this is different, and with so much swag. I want them to take that from me, if anything. —BIA, rapper repping Puerto Rico 

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This has all been amazing. I mean, you know I'm a big fan of music. A big fan of hip-hop. I am familiar with SXSW. I always heard rappers talk about it, rock bands, or whenever I would be looking at MTV, so for me to be here—it's my first time in Texas, period. It's amazing. It's dope. In Texas, it's not like New York, like super lit. [But] these people are really rocking out to my Spanish trap. —Messiah El Artista, rapper from the Dominican Republic 

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I definitely got to show people the essence of who Eli Jas is. I've had to really grow as an artist, so [SXSW] basically saw a new version of Eli Jas, which is fantastic. For the new year, this was one of my biggest performances that I was so excited about, and at this precise moment, I really want to say that I left a new essence for bachata… I was able to come out of my shell and really feel people out. I was able to actually show my personality and not [feel] weird about it. —Eli Jas, recording artist repping New York

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Singers Ronald Isley (L) and Kim Johnson perform at the "18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards" at the Scottish Rite Auditorium on March 20, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter

Music Sermon: The Soul Train Awards Been Lit, We're Just Late To The Party

Black Entertainment's oldest televised awards show has been patiently waiting for us to come back.

As I was watching the 2019 BET Awards, at some point around trying to decipher the difference between DaBaby and Lil Baby, I said – not for the first year – “I’m not the BET Awards demo anymore.” BET’s flagship awards’ aspiration to cover every segment of Black entertainment has always stretched it a little thin; current rap and R&B artists, plus legends, plus some gospel, plus a few TV, movie and sports moments, and some social good and politics crowd a run-of-show. But in the last several years – probably due to me moving solidly into the Urban Adult Contemporary demo – watching the BET Awards has been comprised mostly of me tweeting “Who is this child?” while waiting to see maybe two performances and a tribute. But then, in sweet November, BET gives me my entire two-step life with the Soul Train Awards, where I know (almost) every artist and live for every performance and I can’t even tell you who took an award home because that’s not even the point. The Soul Train Awards is family reunion time: an opportunity for your respected faves get their props and a platform for soulful new school artists who don’t get mainstream airplay. It’s a night to dance and sing along in your living room. Ain’t no stuntin’, no pretense, no cappin’ (did I use that right?). It’s just a good ass time. So why did it take us so long to embrace it again?

BET has owned the legacy awards show since 2009, but for years the Soul Train Awards seemed a bit forgotten. The timeline wasn’t joining forces to watch the Tom Joyner Cruise Live (Side note: Tom Joyner should ABSOLUTELY do the Tom Joyner Cruise Live). Over the last four years, however, an aging millennial demographic combined with a drive of ‘90s nostalgia and renewed demand for straight up and down soul music has shined a light on the awards broadcast. Since 2015, the BET ecosystem has also thrown more support behind the show, including moving it from a Centric/BETHer-branded property to a BET proper event and giving it the same Viacom-wide simulcast as the BET Awards. Production values, talent bookings, and show elements keep rising, and the TL is paying attention. This Sunday, the Soul Train Awards will air live for the first time (the show is usually taped a week or two in advance), with Black America’s favorite on and off-screen besties Tisha Cambell and Tichina Arnold hosting for the second year.

It’s by grace, though, that the Soul Train Awards is even still here for us to enjoy. The show that launched as the only televised Black entertainment awards ceremony started fading during Black music’s growing mainstream dominance, and then was lost in the shadow of the bigger and splashier BET Awards. Superstar artists stopped attending, because teams no doubt felt like their presence wouldn’t move the needle on sales, and it became the Old Heads Awards. Quietly, though, the Soul Train Awards has been a ratings driver for BET since the network acquired the show; the rest of us (including talent) are just finally catching up. And we should be ashamed it took so long! This specific celebration of Black entertainment is as important now as it was when launched over 30 years ago — almost more so — for the very reason that it’s not just a show packed with hottest, newest, latest. But to appreciate the show’s legacy and staying power, we should look back at its history.

In 1987, Soul Train founder Don Cornelius decided it was time to elevate his 20-plus-year-old platform to another level. At the time, the major entertainment awards weren’t properly acknowledging Black artists. The handful that had reached massive pop success – Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston – were recognized and honored.

But in the 80s, the soul and R&B world was still vast and wide.

Cornelius decided it was time to create a night of celebration and excellence which, like Soul Train itself, was created for us, by us. He insisted at the time, “Black music is too big and too powerful not to have its own awards show. It’s overdue.” The Soul Train Awards was born.

Not only did Cornelius want to create a space for our artists who were overlooked by award shows like the Grammys and the AMAs, but also an awards system that didn’t hang on politics, or follow the same long-time criticisms of Grammy voting; selections by a group of people who just vote on the names they know. The voting block for the Soul Train Awards was made up of black retailers, radio programmers and artists themselves, to grant the prized Soul Train trophy design based on African sculpture. But the Soul Train Awards weren’t even meant to be about the awards; they were about highlighting our talent – current and established – featuring special legacy honors, originating the concept of tributes via performances instead of just film packages, and putting together super-performances of key artists across genres. This was our showcase.

For the first eight years of the show, the hosting panel was a mix of Dionne Warwick, Luther Vandross, and Patti Labelle, and our biggest and best showed up in their award finery ready to celebrate and be celebrated. When the Grammys weren’t yet making room for hip-hop, Don gave it a little light (not a whole lot, but a little), and the Soul Train Awards honored Black entertainment across the board, not just music.

In fact, until 1994, the Soul Train Awards were the only televised Black entertainment awards. The Source Awards debuted as the first hip-hop awards show in 1994, The NAACP Image Awards were first televised in 1995, and that same year the female-artist heavy landscape prompted the creation of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Awards. For the first several years, the Black entertainment community turned out in numbers for their long-awaited party. The first year, Black luminaries from Magic Johnson to Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder to Don King to Run DMC to Isaac Hayes were in the building. In 1990, Michael Jackson snubbed the Grammys, but showed up at Soul Train. Whitney Houston was even famously booed at the Soul Train Awards because the crowd felt she was too pop, and this was not a pop space. This was a forum for soul.

But like many of our most important early platforms for Black culture, progress eventually rendered almost of these celebrations obsolete. As Black music crossed over, more Black artists were being recognized by the mainstream, and Black culture became the culture, the entire Soul Train brand felt outdated and unnecessary. By 2000, the awards were in a bit of an identity crisis. After twelve years at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, the show bounced to a new location every year for the next six years. Cornelius started having trouble getting stars to commit to the awards because they were held within a month of the Grammys.

Then, in 2001, BET debuted their award show: a younger, hipper, and larger budget version of the Soul Train Awards that adopted virtually the same format, with Viacom promotional power and a dedicated channel and time slot (unlike Soul Train’s syndication) to their advantage.

In 2006, Soul Train signed off after 35 years and over 1,100 episodes as the longest-running nationally syndicated TV program in America at the time. Around the same time, the syndication company for the show and the awards, Tribune Entertainment, changed hands and shut down. In 2007, the Soul Train Awards’ biggest winners of the night, like Beyoncè and John Legend, didn’t bother to show. Finally, in 2008, there were no Soul Train Awards. And had that been the end of the line for the show for good, there probably would have been very little complaints or rumblings – we’d stopped paying attention, anyway. BET seemed to have all Black excellence bases on lock with the BET Awards, the BET Honors (which debuted in February of 2008), and the BET Hip-Hop Awards (2006). But fortunately, someone at the company had the good sense not to let the Soul Train Awards die.

As part of BET on Jazz’s rebrand to Centric (now BETHer), BET acquired the Soul Train Awards and revamped the program to fully embrace its old head’ness, perfect for the channel geared towards an older demo with a soul music focus. They moved the awards from LA to Georgia (it has since moved to Vegas), changed the date to November, got Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson coming straight off of Hustle & Flow to host, and gave tributes to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band, Chaka Khan and Motown. That’s a party.

Now, here’s the part we probably haven’t been paying attention to: since the very first year in 2009, the Soul Train Awards has been a fourth-quarter ratings hit for BET. In fact, 2009 was the award show’s highest rated broadcast ever in its history. Media and consumer trends often focus on the young, overlooking that while the 35-and-older set may not be as reactive, we’re loyal. Especially with music and entertainment (a look at any number of R&B theater tours featuring people who haven’t released an album in ages will tell you that). The cultural powers-that-be finally seem to be catching on: things that were long considered “Auntie & Uncle” territory, like Essence Festival, are hitting the hip radar. The Soul Train Awards is part of that wave. Also – and this is my personal, not data-supported, get-off-my-lawn opinion – there’s a lightness and fun with good ol’ R&B, soul and even older hip-hop that you just don’t get from the pull-your-panties to the side R&B and mumble rap of the last 10 years.

The BET Awards is now at a similar crossroads as the Soul Train Awards was in the early 00s: major talent is skipping the show, and the network is challenged to put together a cohesive program while trying to serve all demos. After two years of plunging ratings, the broadcast finally seems to have found balance again in 2019. But still, I’m not personally here for all the Lil’s, the YBNs and YGs and other letter configurations, and Babies and whatnot. I need music that works as a backdrop for brown liquor in red solo cups, please. But as viewers and fans, we also have to check ourselves on our awards show criticisms. Complaints amplify every year around the Grammys, AMAs and the like that we need to give less weight to mainstream awards and celebrate our own, ourselves, which is exactly what Don Cornelius and then Bob Johnson and team set out to do. During the BET Awards, though, there are gripes about the diversity and quality of talent, content and production. There was even a period of Black Twitter referring to them as the “EBT Awards.” Criticism is often valid, but straight disdain isn’t. Also every year, there are cries about how we need more and different awards shows. Meanwhile, Soul Train’s been right there, chillin’, with your old school faves and your burgeoning soul stars. I’m ok with knowing I’m not the right in the pocket of the BET Awards demo anymore, but that means I’m going to support the Soul Train Awards with all my Auntie might because Black music and culture needs the intergenerational love and community that the Soul Train Awards represent.

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Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity, to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize aTyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films, or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, its in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit--even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

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Solange Uses Her Divine Spirit To Calm The Mind And Body For "Bridge-s" Performance Piece

There's a serene feeling over the bodies standing in the iconic architecture at the Getty Center Museum. Jazzy horns, peaceful keys, and crisp guitar riffs gently interrupt the soothing silence as dancers dripped in marigold threads swayed to "Counting," a composition created by Solange. A series of odd numbers like "5", "7" and "9" are recited on a loop by half of her dancers while the others chant "6", "4" and "2." It's just a preview of her latest creation Bridge-s but felt like a dynamic meditation.

Bridge-s brings yet another magnetic piece into her series of interdisciplinary works that spawned after the release of her magnum opus, A Seat At The Table. The world was introduced to Solange's artistic side thanks to performance art pieces at the Guggenheim in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Composed by Solange and choreographed by Gerard & Kelly, Bridge-s was created with the pillars, beams, and columns around the museum in mind. Dancers and the orchestra used the space to their advantage, with tuba players catching the peripheral of attendees from afar.

Four rollouts will take place November 16-17, curated with a selection of films that include Black to Techno by Jenn Nkiru, AFRONAUTS and Boneshaker by Nuotama Bodomo, The State of Things by singer-songwriter Kish Robinson (Kilo Kish) and more. In its entirety, Bridge-s was designed to explore "transitions through time."

This was felt throughout the performance piece as dancers move with the intent of love, internal struggle, and unity. In a stunning zine designed by Sablā Stays, Gerard & Kelly shared the emphasis behind their modernist and inclusive approach.

"Our work, like hers, is part of an interdisciplinary effort throughout the arts and humanities to redefine modernism by critically engaging its prevailing narratives. By accounting for differences of gender, sexuality, and race. By focusing on intimate and collective histories. By centering our work around the body, dance and movement," they said.

Solange also opened up about the importance the museum and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg played in the performance piece. "Both Elbphilharmonie Hamburg and the Getty Museum have sure strong distinctive voices spatially, and so the intention is that all of the work, the movement, the language, the songs all align with those principles," she said. "Working with Gerard and Kelly, who share many of the same philosophies on their approach to interpreting time and space through performance has really built the foundation [for] the spirit of this collaboration."

Like the rest of us, the artist watched closely the dancers glide across the floor, while bandmembers release enchanting sonnets with vocalists dropping a few high notes in between. Guests like Thundercat (and his Pikachu backpack), Kilo Kish, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange and Tyler, The Creator were also left speechless after the performance.

“I just want to thank you guys for allowing me the space to evolve, experiment and express new frontiers,” Solange said to the crowd after the assembly provided endless cheers.

Learn more about Bridge-s and get free tickets here.

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