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Out Of Time: The System Failed Kalief Browder, But It Doesn't Have To Fail Others

In light of TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, VIBE spoke to organizers of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign to discuss what's next on the juvenile justice reform agenda. 

Spike TV's docu-series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story walked viewers through the unimaginable and horrifying experience that Kalief Browder endured at Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack in May 2010. Because of a bag, a faulty identification from the victim, and a vicious justice system, Kalief spent three years of his childhood in the prison system while his case was wrapped up in a number of technicalities and misrepresented information. In Rikers, the once playful and charismatic teenager was verbally and physically abused by inmates and guards. When he chose to speak up or fight back, he was thrown into solitary confinement for egregious amounts of time. As a result, Kalief's mental health suffered tremendously and despite attempting to conform to society as a 21-year-old, he couldn't and commited suicide in June 2015.

"The Kalief Browder Story is a witches brew of everything gone wrong in the criminal justice system," Mark Soler, Executive Director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy and founder of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, said. "Every single entity that was supposed to do a job, failed. The police did not investigate his case adequately. The people at Rikers did not provide a minimum level of safety when he was inside. The doctors that he came into contact with, mistakenly thought he started with a mental illness and gave him powerful anti-psychotic drugs, which had terrible consequences. The prosecutor misrepresented the situation to the court; the judges brought shame to the profession by allowing all those continuances, and Kalief’s own lawyer failed him."

Unfortunately, the system betrayed Kalief, but it doesn't have to destroy others. Stop Solitary for Kids is a campaign launched to eliminate the detrimental method of solitary confinement as an appropriate form of punishment. The campaign, in which Kalief's mother Venida Browder was a board member, seeks to bring awareness to the issue while providing solutions and alternative programs that foster positive change in youth rather than harm.

Kalief's story unveiled the devastating truth of our juvenile justice system, but unfortunately, it was at the hand of his death. With that being said, his death will not go unnoticed. VIBE spoke with Soler as well as Staff Attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and Campaign Manager, Jennifer Lutz on their organization's mission, the impact of Kalief's story, and what happens next on the path toward reform.

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VIBE: Can you elaborate on the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign and its mission? 
Mark Soler: Everyday there are about 50,000 or more young people who are held in juvenile facilities away from their home. There’s another 5,000 or so who are held in prisons and jails everyday. Solitary confinement is in many juvenile facilities around the United States. We don’t have careful reports on how many kids are put into solitary confinement, but surveys find about a third of young people have an experience of being held in solitary. And about half of those were held for more than 24 hours. Solitary confinement is a terrible experience for young people. It is emotionally damaging and psychologically numbing. The only thing that would come close to it is if you imagine you went into your own bathroom at home and took everything out of it -- the radio, the magazines, everything off of the counter -- leave it completely bare, and then close the door and look at it for the next hour. It’s very hard to do. The lack of stimuli in those places is a terrifying experience.

So what we are trying to do in the campaign is to end the use of solitary confinement. Now, that does not mean if a child is out of control, assaulting other kids or staff in the facility, that there’s nothing the staff can do. On the contrary, if a child is out of control, the staff should separate them from other people they’re getting into trouble with. Put them in a quiet place in another part of the room or their own, and let them calm down. The issue is, once they calm down, they should be released to go back into regular programming. But what actually happens is that the young people get into trouble, talk back to a staff member or get into a pushing match with somebody else, and they get put into their rooms and they’re left there for long periods of time. In many facilities, the minimum is four hours and it can go on for eight to 16 hours or longer. That is totally unacceptable. So we want to end this practice. And the way we want to do this is to bring insiders and outsiders together. To truly end this problem, we need to involve the people who put children into solitary, meaning the people who run juvenile correctional agencies and the superintendents of juvenile facilities and staff. So we have three partner organizations (Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Center for Juvenile Reform at Georgetown University, Justice Policy Institute) all over the United States, to build on the strength of agencies that are doing the right thing and spreading the word of what they’re doing.

What's the difference between solitary confinement and confinement as forms of punishment? 
MS: Room confinement, which is also called isolation or segregation, is appropriate when a child is out of control. Not only is it acceptable, but it's the strong thing to do to separate a child from getting into a conflict and giving them time to calm down. Everything other than an immediate, short-term time for the child to calm down, is solitary confinement.

Teenagers are going to talk back to the staff, and as expected, staff may become aggravated. How do you build a better relationship between staff and inmates and create trust and compassion between the two parties?
MS: That is the fundamental question in all of this. First of all, there needs to be leadership from the top. There needs to be a clear policy in the facility that we are not going to treat these young people as prisoners. We’re going to treat them as young people who are having trouble, who have potential in life, and need support. And we’re going to make sure they stay safe while they’re here, and help them as much as we possibly can. There needs to be a culture in the facility and in the agency that is a culture of supporting young people rather than a culture that is rigid and punitive. Rigid and punitive is the old way of doing things. [It's] what you saw at Rikers Island. There has to be an environment that is not punitive but instead, looks to the goodness and potential of the young people that are there.

Then we need to make sure that the staff are trained and they are comfortable handling any situation. Most staff get training for handling conflict, where the training is about 20 percent on how to talk to the kids and deescalate and 80 percent is how to get physical control of them -- how to get control of their hands and arms and put them down on the floor. We don’t like those kinds of training. There is a training called Safe Crisis Management that comes out of a program in Pennsylvania where 80 percent of training is how to talk to young people who are in conflict, and only 20 percent is about how to get physical control. Safe Crisis Management spends so much time emphasizing that staff need not obey their intuitive response. An intuitive response when a kid talks back to you is to say I’m in charge. Intuitive responses for staff is to bring other staff in and say to the child, we have more power than you. The training has to train the intuitive reaction out of the staff and replace it with a calm, patient demeanor, which asks the young person to tell me what the real problem is. Young people don’t just fly off the handle for no reason. There’s almost always a reason. It may not be a reason that adults think is a good reason, but it’s a reason. They may have learned that they’re not getting released when they went to court. They may have gotten a call from a family member who told them that mom is having some health problems or heard from someone in the family that [their] girlfriend is hanging around with somebody else. None of them may be good reasons for getting into a fight, but it may be that the young person is very upset and needs a way to express that. In most cases, these police officers at the training academy are only two or three years older than the kids we’re talking about. So they should be able to empathize.

We’re talking about kids Kalief’s age or younger, but as studies have shown, even in your early 20s, the brain has not developed fully. Should there be an age limit on solitary confinement?
MS: Solitary should be thrown out, but it is much harder to do in adult facilities. With adult facilities, you don’t start with the presumption of innocence of adolescence. I’m not talking in a legal sense as in you're innocent until proven guilty. When we’re talking about young people, we believe they can change because we’ve seen them grow. We know from the brain research that people’s brains are developing until their mid-20s. The part of the brain that develops last is the pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that covers executive functions or the planning functions. It’s the part of the brain that understands there could be future consequences. A 16-year-old does not have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex. That means that they cannot understand the future consequences of irresponsible behavior now in the way that a 30-year-old can understand it. Adults coming to 17-year-olds and saying don’t do this, you’re going to get in trouble later, is not going to be very effective. In addition, we know that young people are highly influenced by their peers. For most teenagers, they are likely to be more influenced by what their peers do than what their parents tell them to do. That’s not to say their parents are unimportant, but most teenagers are more likely to do what their peers want to do than what their parents want them to do. For those reasons, we have a different way of thinking about young people. When you’re talking about inmates in their 30s and 40s and older, we don’t come with that kind of thinking about them. They are older, their brains have developed, and they get much less sympathy from the public and from the people who run these facilities. That makes it much harder to make changes.

How do you think Kalief’s story gave momentum to this campaign as well as impacted decision-makers or people in power to create change?
MS: The facts of what happened to Kalief are terrible. A lot of them came out in Jennifer Gonnerman’s article in The New Yorker, but the filmmakers [at Spike TV] went further than anybody else. They went further than the police and Jennifer was able to do. They really set out to first understand the story about what happened to Kalief, and then tell the complete story. I have been working on juvenile justice reform for the past 39 years, and I have seen many situations that are parts of what happened to Kalief. I’ve never seen a situation where he was failed by every single agency that was responsible for him. So I think the aggregation of horrible failure is one of the things that is so dramatically impressive about the situation. The comprehensiveness [in the series] of the things that went wrong really has an impact. The other is the way the filmmakers have told the story in an unfolding way. In each episode you learn more of what’s going on. That’s not just putting film clips together; that’s actually telling a story. The storytellers have thought a lot about how to unwind the story in a way that provides entertainment. It’s not happy entertainment, but it’s entertainment that keeps people engaged.

Jennifer Lutz: In addition to working with administrators and directors of facilities and agencies, we also want to provide other ways to address solitary confinement for kids. Specifically, one of those ways is law making. So we’ve seen in response to the series, a general awareness of this issue within the normal viewing public, but also lawmakers and policy makers in states and counties are getting a better understanding of what solitary confinement actually is. [The series] really puts an experiential spin on solitary confinement, and it helps people realize just how horrible it is. So having that footage and allowing us to see it, has raised awareness about the issue of solitary confinement in a new way, and hopefully that will be helpful for those who are involved in law making at the state and federal level and also for people in communities to get involved locally because that’s where a lot of the reform will take place. We are also seeing in facilities that administrators and staff are saying this is really an issue, whereas usually, we thought of being locked up as the end of the problem. But the truth is, that’s really the beginning of a big chapter for someone who is locked up. So it’s for the first time, pulling up the curtain on what happens inside of the juvenile justice system.

How do we counteract the damage that’s already been done?
MS: In terms of the medication, there are psychiatrists who will prescribe medication and not monitor the individuals who are taking the medication and will continue to do it. When it happens in a correctional setting or happens to somebody who has undergone this kind of trauma, it can be devastating. We need to make sure when doctors prescribe powerful anti-psychotic medication, that they carefully monitor.

"To truly end this problem, we need to involve the people who put children into solitary."

There is no way of erasing the traumatic experience that Kalief had because that kind of trauma would stay with Kalief his whole life because of how powerful of an experience it was. The question is how do we incorporate love and support of young people to overcome that trauma? What we have to do is to stress the positives in their life and try to arrange more. In [episode five], [Kalief] kept saying I want to get a job, and the truth is he needed it. For a young person to grow up healthy in our world, they need a couple of things. One thing is they need at least one adult who believes in them completely and will give them undivided love. Kalief had that. He had a mother who gave him undivided love. She was an amazing woman. The second thing is children need to be involved in something. They need to be engaged either in school or as they get older, in work. The third thing is they need to develop their skills. One thing you see with Kalief is what a sweet, young guy he was. He thought deeply about whether he should admit to something he didn’t do. He seemed to think of it as a moral issue and he didn’t want to repeat the experience that his brother had. And so Kalief had terrific skills and talent, but was not able to grow those talents and build them up in a way that would give him a place in society. He kept talking about trying to find his place, but he couldn’t shed the burden that this horrible three-year trauma had brought on him.

You’ve mentioned alternatives to solitary confinement like taking away movie privileges or punishments of that nature, but it’s been acknowledged in the series that some of these kids are more violent than Kalief. What are some other alternatives besides ones that seem a bit softer?
MS: The first thing to think about is how to make sure kids don’t get into this trouble. Young people who are incarcerated should be busy all the time. They go to school for five or six hours a day, but the day is longer than that. The most effective facilities, the ones that have the least amount of conflict, are the ones that have young people engaged in structured activities. If they’re not in school, they can be in groups or counseling sessions. Every facility is in a community and every community has leaders who can come in and talk to the young people. Every community has people in business, including people who have overcome the odds to come in. Every community has health and mental health practitioners who can talk about issues that are directly related to young people. So we encourage the facilities to bring in volunteers to talk about themselves, but also answer questions that kids have. Then we have young people who do violent things, and there are a lot of sanctions that can be applied to them that they won’t like, including writing an essay of an apology to the person they may have hit or gotten into an argument with. For many kids, writing is very difficult. So that’s a sanction that actually means something. Not being allowed to do the things that other kids do is a sanction. The problem with solitary is it kills their soul. We want to make the message that you can’t hurt other people, but if a message we’re sending is we can get three or five staff to overpower you and put you in your room, that is the worst kind of message to send to children. We want children to understand that when there’s a conflict, we resolve it by talking things out.

These alternatives are sometimes called soft, but the important thing is what does the sanction mean to the young person? There’s research that shows combining positive rewards with sanctions is much more effective than just applying the sanctions. And it’s much harder to insist on using the alternatives. It’s easy for a staff person to react to a young person breaking a rule by coming down on them. It’s much harder to use patience and talk a kid down. Most staff have a lot of trouble with it, especially doing it more than a couple of minutes. When we train staff, we say you may have to be talking to this child for an hour at a time, but as long as you’re talking to them, they’re not causing any disruption. The more you talk with them, the more you’re going to learn what’s going on.

JL: You’re using that old school punitive mindset, they seem "soft." But this problem requires a solution that shifts that mindset. We suggest folks do that because we know that it’s worked in Ohio, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. There are other ways to respond to kids. Part of what we see and what we know about young people is that they respond much better to incentives than punishments. So part of this programming is having things for them to do, making sure the facilities have options and things for kids to do that they want to do. That as incentive to maintain positive behavior is actually really powerful. Rather than looking at their behavior that gets solitary confinement as the problem, we should see it as the result of the entire facility. So shifting the culture of the environment, could prevent a lot. And when we talk about kids in gangs, it’s really important that we not lose sight of the fact that they’re kids, but what are gangs for most of these kids? It’s a way to belong. It’s a way to feel a part of something. What we have to do to work with those kids is let them be a part of something else. So create more of a sense of community. These kids are not a special breed of kids. Like everyone else, they respond to things. If we treat them like criminals or animals, that’s probably how they’re going to respond. But if we give them different options, it may be counterintuitive for some folks, but it actually works.

Do you think Rikers Island will ever shut down permanently?
MS: When you see the series, you think there’s no way of fixing this. This is such a terrible place that we would just like bulldozers to bulldoze it all into the ground and start again. There are much better ways to incarcerate people than what they do at Rikers. You can lock people up and they can be locked up for considerable periods of time, but if they’re in smaller facilities, there’s a much better chance that they will not be violent and staff will have a chance to get to know them. They have to break up these gigantic facilities and create much smaller facilities. The problem is the political problem of NIMBY -- not in my backyard. People are not going to want New York City jails in their neighborhood. And that’s a tough one. I remember 25 years ago when there was a single juvenile detention facility in New York City. The woman who was the head of Department of Juvenile Justice at the time was a friend of mine, and she used to have endless community meetings about people’s fear of having criminals in their community. They were afraid of what would happen to the property value. So there was a lot of resistance. I really commend the [New York] mayor for taking a position of closing down Rikers.

How can the community get involved? 
MS: Everybody lives in a community, and there is a juvenile facility in that community or nearby. If people want to know about [solitary confinement], go visit the juvenile facility. See what it’s like inside. But the whole sense of incarceration, of what it means to be locked in and the kinds of places that these young people live in when they are incarcerated, everybody should get a first-hand experience of that.

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Quavo Is Introducing 'Fan Controlled Football' To The Culture

From their penchant for popping tags and name-dropping designer brands in their rhymes to the obsession with diamond-encrusted neckwear, the Migos are the modern-day poster-children for decadence and opulence. But when it comes to balling, group member Quavo is a seasoned veteran, literally and figuratively. Notorious for his appearances in NBA all-star celebrity games, where he routinely dominates the competition, Huncho has built a rep as one of the athletically gifted hit-makers in music today.

Although he's known for his skills on the hardwood, football is definitely among his passions. His newest endeavor, an ownership stake in Fan Controlled Football (FCF), the first professional sports league to put the viewer in the coach's seat and the general manager's office, in live time, finds him putting his focus back on the gridiron. Having inked an exclusive, multi-year streaming broadcast partnership with Twitch, the FCF will be the first professional sports league to be fully integrated with the streaming platform with the potential to explode in the digital age, where user interest and participation is the main recipe for success.

Having tossed the pigskin around as a Georgia high school football star, to Quavo, it was a no-brainer to get involved with the innovative league on the ground level. “We are building a brand and something different in our league – with the fans. They are in control and get to pick the team names, colors, logos, and more,” said Quavo said in a press release. “I’m really excited because FCF is fast-paced, high-scoring 7v7 football and you are in control. You go from sitting on the couch watching TV and pressing buttons on the remote to actually pressing the buttons on the plays.”

Played on "a 35-yard x 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones,” the Fan Controlled Football league will kick off in February 2021, with a four-week regular season, one week of playoffs, and a Championship week. The league will consist of former elite D-1 athletes, the CFL, XFL, and the Indoor Football League. Broadcasted live from the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, each game will be 60 minutes in length and will allow the viewers to play a hand in the final outcome on Twitch.

Aside from sports, Quavo has been relatively lowkey on the musical tip as of late, with two years having passed since a solo release or a Migos album. However, according to him, this delay can be considered the calm before the storm, as he assures him and his brethren are primed for one of their biggest years yet. VIBE hopped on the line with Quavo to talk Fan Controlled Football, what he's got cooking in the studio, and his foray into TV and film.

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You're the newest team owner at Fan Controlled Football (FCF). What about the league piqued your interest and made you wanna get involved?

It's just showing my interest in the game of football and just trying to put a twist to where it's fan-controlled, fan-involved. A lot of times we watch the game, you watch the game, you just have some concerns. Sometimes you feel you can make the plays or call the play, [with FCF], you can sit on the couch and make the play. I just think we came together to make something crazy like that. I feel like it's something hard, it's something new, it's something fresh. It's a new beginning to something, like giving ni**as a chance. Giving D-1 players who couldn't make it to the league a chance, giving ex-NFL ni**as a chance if they still got it, [and] to go with the fans. When we saw the Falcons lose the Superbowl LI, we [fans] just knew what plays to call, we knew to run the ball. We were up 28-3. All we had to do was hold the ball, but we wanted to air it out and we made a mistake and lost to Tom Brady. Just like when Marshawn could've won a Superbowl. If they'd have given him the ball on the two-yard line. We knew that Marshawn Lynch was supposed to get the ball, [but] they wanted Russell Wilson to win it and the New England Patriots caught an interception. So that's how we're trying to shape it, we're trying to make something new.

The FCF will be live-streamed exclusively on Twitch, which has become one of the leading platforms for eSports live-streaming and will kick off in February 2021. Do you feel the FCF has the opportunity to fill that NFL void during the spring, particularly given the fan engagement that FCF enables?

Most definitely, cause after the Super Bowl, it just feels like you just want another game. You feel like you want one more game. and coming from something [where it's] eleven on eleven players to seven on seven, I feel [there’s] still a difference. After coming from watching the game and the regular politics, the regular structure of the game, now you're getting to be involved in a game that you can control. You can pick the jersey, you can pick the helmets, you can pick the jerseys, you can pick the coaches, you can pick the plays. I just feel there are two different dynamics [between the NFL and FCF). You come from sitting on the couch and pressing the remote to actually pressing the button on the plays."

Speaking of fan engagement, the FCF is the only professional sports league that enables fans to call the plays in real-time and puts the viewer in control of a game’s outcome like never before. Have you ever had that experience, as far as fantasy football?

Nah, but I'm into Madden. You can sit at home and pick your plays [with FCF], it's just like the lifestyle of Madden. It's like a reality of Madden. You're playing with people at home, with these unique athletes, and it's seven-on-seven.

As an Atlanta native, how significant was the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility being in your hometown in your decision to come on board as an owner?

It's very important. We got top-tier talent here, so it's opening up opportunities for a lot of guys. We're just glad it's in the south, it's like a hub. Everybody loves Atlanta and everybody wanna be here. Everybody wanna play and the weather is good.

NFL Super Bowl Champions Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, boxing legend Mike Tyson, and YouTuber and podcaster empire Greg Miller are among the FCF's team owners. How does it feel to be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes and entertainers in the world? Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of them?

Most definitely. I have a good relationship with Mike Tyson. I've met Marshawn Lynch, it's a blessing. I feel like we're not competing right now, I feel like we're building a brand. I feel like we're building a league. I feel like we're trying to make the world understand what we're bringing to the table and what type of game we bring to the table, you feel me? I feel we're trying to create something different. Once we get the ball rolling, it's all together and moving into a real FCF league, then we'll get to compete. Of course, we all wanna win, but right now, we're just trying to get the foundation and the basics going and letting the strength of the owners and the relationships show on the field.

Being that you'll all be working with your respective fan bases in shaping your team’s personality and identity, any thoughts about what the team’s name will be? 

Man, I wish I did, but it's so straight strictly fans that you never know. Just like with music, can have an idea that is a smash, and then the fans don't think it is. You gotta strictly listen to the fans on this one. You gotta listen strictly to how they want it because it's the point of the game, that's the point of the league. We gotta let them control this game and then we the players and we the people that's listening to the people, the culture. FCF stands for culture, too, you feel what I'm saying? We listen to the culture, we're letting the culture run the field.

How involved will you be in the drafting and scouting process for your squad?

The fans make the draft, fans get to see everything. Open books, everything. It's an open thing, it ain't nothing to hide over here. The fans control it all.

In addition to sports, you've also been delving into acting, with cameos in shows like Atlanta, Star, Black-ish, and Ballers. Earlier this year, you appeared as yourself in Narcos: Mexico. How did that opportunity come about? 

Narcos reached out. We [Migos] had this song called “Narcos” on the [Culture II] album and we went and shot [the video] in Miami and everybody thought it was a Narcos movie scene and it ended up being Madonna's house. So we just shot that there and then they reached out to us. I think Offset had a performance somewhere and Takeoff had to do something and I just ended up being free that day and I went and shot it in New Mexico. I had fun, I loved it.

Do you have plans to pursue any supporting or leading roles in film or television?

Hell yeah, most definitely. I've been sitting down and having real great meetings with directors and people that got some movies in the works for 2021. I feel like I’ve got some good spots. I don't wanna tell it cause they’re gonna make some announcements. It's coming soon.

It's been two years since you've released a solo project or one with the Migos. Can fans expect any new music from you anytime soon and what are your next plans on that front?

Most definitely, hell yeah, we're shooting videos right now. We’re vaulting up a whole lot of videos so we can give you music and visuals at the same time. “Need It," the song came first and then the video. Right now, we wanna get a lot of videos and a lot records in the vault and smash [them] all at once 'cause it's been two years.

Pop Smoke's passing was one of the more tragic events in rap in recent memory, but his debut album, which you appeared on throughout, has been one of the most successful and acclaimed projects of 2020. How has it been seeing how the album’s been received, especially after you and him developed such a bond in a short time?

I'm happy. I'm proud of him, that was my partner. We did a lot of records, we spent a lot of time together and I feel like the album would've did even more with him being alive. A lot of people's album just go crazy when they die, I feel like his sh*t would've still went crazy. He had the momentum, he had the buzz. He was having fun. He was hot, he was fresh, he had everything ready.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

A post shared by Word Sound & Power (@boomshots) on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:19am PDT

When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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DJ Cassidy

DJ Cassidy Speaks On 'Pass The Mic Vol. 2' Ft. Hip-Hop Greats LL Cool J, Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte And 30+ More MCs

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc globally, 2020 has been a year filled with tragedy and uncertainty, as an innumerable amount of lives have been taken or affected as a result of the spread of the virus. The world of entertainment, which relies on ticket-holders and live spectators, is affected severely, with artists unable to tour, give live performances, interact with fans, or even create material by committee. This unprecedented blackout of sorts is a tough pill to swallow and threatens to forever alter the industry as we know it. However, as a culture and artform that built its history around making the best of times with minimal resources at its disposal, hip-hop is at the forefront of keeping the public entertained and butts moving, with various DJs, artists, and producers discovering new ways to stay in tune with the people.

While new, digital platforms like DJ D-Nice's "Club Quarantine" and Swizz Beatz and Timbaland's "Verzuz" battle series are ahead of the curve, the latest virtual experience to emerge is Pass The Mic, a live event created and hosted by legendary spinner DJ Cassidy. A native New Yorker, Cassidy, who made his name via the club circuit during the late '90s and early aughts, has a resume that rivals the most accomplished of DJs, having spun at high profile events such as the 2009 inauguration ball for Barack Obama, Obama's 50th birthday party, and the wedding of JAY-Z and Beyonce. Performing hundreds of shows on a yearly basis, Cassidy, whose touring schedule was halted due to the pandemic, was stuck at home when a conversation with legendary soul musician Verdine White of Earth, WInd & Fire gave him an epiphany.

 

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Thank you @revwon @kingdmc @llcoolj @mrchuckd_pe @therealdjchillwill @therealdougefresh @thegodrakim @mcshan1 @mcmilkdee @specialedmusic @emceeserch @mclyte @chipfu @erick_sermon @doitalldu @therealgrandpuba @djpremier @darealgregnice #smoothb @blacksheepdres @therealclsmooth @realpeterock darealmonielove @youngmc89 @chubblive @officialbigdaddykane @robbasemusic @kidfromkidnplay @the_playgroundz @darealpepa @saltnpepaofficial @speech__ @rasadon @eshe2xgrammy @treachtribe @unclevinrock ❤️ You are my heroes. And to all 122,000 people that tuned in, I am truly grateful. 🎙👑🎙#PassTheMic @rockthebells @behindtherhymetv @twitch

A post shared by DJ Cassidy (@djcassidy) on Aug 5, 2020 at 9:13pm PDT

Cassidy explains: "In the heat of the pandemic, in the middle of the quarantine, I was facetiming with my good friend and mentor Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Verdine has grown to be a close friend whom I truly admire, and he and I go to dinner every month or so and, obviously, we were not able to do that. So we were on a Facetime call catching up and while I was talking to him, his song, ‘That's The Way of the World,’ came on my speakers. And ‘That's The Way of The World’ is my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire song and on a regular day, it sends a chill down my spine. But being that the world was in flux and everyone was in their homes, separate from each other, [and] being that I was looking into his eyes as I heard the song, a kind of special feeling came over me. And I said, 'You know, I'm very lucky that I have so many relationships with all of my heroes of music and I can hear their music in their company.' And I said, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if I could find some way to give that special feeling to other people around the world during this crazy time. And I said, 'Well, if I can connect my musical heroes from home to home, perhaps I can give people this feeling that I'm feeling right now. And perhaps I can use that as a way to pay homage to the heroes around the world fighting for health.' So therein lies the foundation of the whole idea."

That spark ultimately evolved into Pass The Mic Vol. 1, which saw some of the biggest R&B stars of the late '70s and the '80s performing their greatest hits from the comfort of their homes, for the world to see. The event, which was streamed live on Twitch before being uploaded to Cassidy's Instagram page, was a big hit, amassing upwards of twenty thousand viewers, prompting the DJ to follow up with a second volume geared towards his first love: Hip-Hop. Airing this past Wednesday (Aug. 5), Pass The Mic Vol. 2 saw DJ Cassidy summoning a slew of his friends, who just happen to be among the greatest rap artists of all-time, to join him in a cipher of the most pivotal rap records of the '80s and early '90s. DJ Premier, of the legendary rap group Gang Starr, spoke on DJ Cassidy approaching him to be a part of the massive celebration. "When Cassidy texted me the links to VOLUME 1, I was blown away by the people he chose," Premier shares. "And it kept getting more and more exciting as the songs progressed to wonder who's next. Even the way he sequenced it..."

Beginning with Run of Run DMC performing "Sucker M.C.'s," the nearly forty minute set included appearances from the likes of LL Cool J, Chuck D, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Kid N' Play and Naughty By Nature, all of whom tear the house down, albeit virtually from the comfort of their own. The session includes many magical moments and is filled with a love for one another, as well as the culture that brings us all together.

With the second volume in the series having took place, with many more to come, VIBE spoke with DJ Cassidy via phone about the genesis of Pass The Mic, what the process entailed putting the first two volumes together, the healing and unification of music, and how Black music has had an indelible impact on his life and career.

VIBE: The first volume of Pass The Mic included appearances by Earth, Wind & Fire, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Kool & The Gang, Patrice Rushen, and other stars of the '70s '80s. What made you kick off the series celebrating that particular era?

DJ Cassidy: I think two main reasons come to mind. First of all, the Facetime call with Verdine White was really the genesis of the concept, so it was that call that inspired the whole idea. And it was that song, the first song on Vol. 1 that was playing, so to me, it was automatic that I should go to that era of music to set the project off. But the second reason is kind of a bigger picture, which is I really believe that that music is the most feel-good, uplifting music ever created. It is undeniably body-moving and for two-thirds of my life, I've traveled the world, making people dance and there is no music that uplifts, inspires people, makes people smile and makes people dance than the r&b music of the '70s and the '80s. So when the world is going through what it's going through and people wanna smile and people wanna be uplifted and people wanna unite, there really was no greater music to channel to try to do such a thing, to achieve such a mission.

How would you describe an episode of Pass The Mic and what are some unique wrinkles users can expect?

Pass The Mic is an interactive mixtape delivered in a way that you've never experienced before. As I drop each record, you experience that record with the artist who recorded that record and you connect with those artists from home to home. And through that personal experience, you're left with an emotional experience of music unlike any before. And I'd be lying if I said I thought that all the way through when I started, I didn't. A lightbulb went off for me, I saw the big picture and I went for it, but I didn't quite understand how emotional the response would be until I premiered it.

You've also mentioned how the times we're in, with the COVID-19 pandemic, was also a factor in you creating Pass The Mic. What are your thoughts on how other DJs and producers have been adapting to the climate we're in?

Well, I think the pandemic has been such a tough time for everyone around the world, yet it's also been a great time for DJs to be the best versions of themselves. At our core, we DJs unite people. At our foundation we bring people together through music and no one exemplified that better, bigger and faster than D-Nice. In the first week of the pandemic, he found a way to unite the world through DJing and it was truly beautiful to watch then and remains beautiful to watch now.

You've been spinning professionally for upwards of two decades and have an expansive list of high-profile artists and musicians at your disposal. What has the recruiting process for Pass The Mic entailed and how would you describe the artists' reception to the idea of it all?

Well, the process has certainly evolved, I would say that's the best word to use. The recruitment process for Vol. 1 was entirely different from Vol. 2 'cause while recruiting artists for Vol.1, I had nothing to show. All I had was a crazy idea that some people understood and some people didn't, but what they did exhibit was a unanimous trust in me and for that, I was not only grateful, but extremely honored. We're talking about some of the most legendary r&b artists of all time, they don't need to do my Pass The Mic idea. And they all took a leap of faith and they put their trust in me and I think they were all excited by the results and that really was the biggest reward. The recruiting process for Vol. 2 was entirely different because not only had many of the artists now seen Vol. 1, but for those who didn't I of course had Vol. 1 to show them. One of the greatest experiences was calling Big Daddy Kane, one of the greatest rappers of all-time.

Now, I haven't spoken to Kane on the phone in years. In fact, I might have never spoken to Kane on the phone before. I first developed a relationship when he performed at my birthday party in New York many years ago, over ten years ago. And every time we see him, it's all love and, of course, I admire, idolize and look up to him and I wasn't even sure if I had the right number I called, I got a voicemail, it wasn't his voice. I text him, I said 'Kane, it's Cassidy, is this still you?'  And he called me within five minutes and I picked up and go, 'Kane!' And his first words were, 'Look, if you're calling about something having to do with Pass The Mic, I'm in,' and that was one of the greatest phone calls I've ever had in my life. And I will never forget that one sentence. Big Daddy Kane, the great, the legend, the forefather, he not only saw it, but loved it, felt that's why I might be calling and was down to take part in whatever I was doing and there's really no words to describe that feeling. And that sentiment was common in many of my phone calls  that a lot of the artists I was calling had seen Vol. 1 and were really emotional in their response to it. So the recruiting process from Vol. 1 and 2 were very different, in that respect.

For the debut volume of Pass The Mic, you partnered with Twitch, a streaming platform that's been continuing to gain steam. What spurred you to use that particular platform and is that partnership official?

Firstly, what I was doing wasn't possible to present to people on Instagram. I love Instagram, it's the platform I use the most, it's how I share my life and times, but there was no way I could've presented Pass The Mic through Instagram. So I was looking for a platform that allowed for a live experience, one which I could treat as a live event and there were several: YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. And Twitch seemed like a great home for the launch, their platform, their technology, their fanbase. They're extremely forward thinking and it was a great place, but it was also a partnership with the Behind The Rhyme channel. Behind The Rhyme is a channel on Twitch that presents  lots of great content having to do with hip-hop and r&b, specifically classic hip-hop and r&b, but all kinds of hip-hop and r&b. So it was a great kind of home for Vol. 1 and it worked out well, so I've chosen to host a live event for Vol. 2 there as well. And I've also partnered with Rock The Bells on this edition, they represent all things classic hip-hop so it's self-explanatory. The partnership is a no-brainer. LL Cool J and his brand represent everything that Pass The Mic Vol. 2 strives to represent, the beauty and inspiration of classic hip-hop.

The second episode of Pass The Mic aired this past Wednesday (August 5), and saw you putting the focus on the golden era of hip-hop, with legends like LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa all appearing on the show. How would you describe your relationship with that era of hip-hop and how the music inspired you as a DJ?  

Well, I grew up in that era of hip-hop. I grew up memorizing the words of the hip-hop records of the mid '80s, late '80s, and early '90s, that was my childhood.  Hip-Hop is my first love, hip-hop is why I became a DJ, hip-hop is why I asked my parents to buy me two turntables and a mixer for my birthday when I turned ten. And these artists, the artists who I've included in Pass The Mic Vol. 2 are my true heroes. They are the artists I looked up to as a child, they are the artists I idolized as a child and to this day, I hold them up on the highest of pedestal.  They define the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I danced, the way I dress, the way I fought, they gave me identity. Without these artists, I don't really know what my identity would be. I became who I am through this music, so this volume really meant a lot to me, the last twenty-one days have been surreal.

Yeah, for sure. The reason the past twenty-one days have been so surreal is not only because I got to Zoom with all of my heroes of hip-hop, but because after we knocked out what we had to do we stayed on for another half an hour or more talking. And sometimes I'd be on with some of these artists for an hour and I'd be asking them questions and they would tell me stories and I just heard the greatest anecdotes. And sometimes with those whom I had relationships with, we talked about stories that involved me and us and those were incredibly special, for obvious reasons, but all the stories were just, like, gems. They were just dropping gems on me. I have all that footage and I hope, at some point, there is another component of Pass The Mic where I share those stories.

What would you say are three records from that period that personally resonate with you?

"Sucker M.C.’s" is a very important song to me, as it is to hip-hop culture, as it is I believe, to pop culture. "Sucker MCs," in my opinion, is the archetype of a hip-hop record. It's so brilliantly simple and it's powerful because of its brilliant simplicity. All that's on there is a kick, a snare, a clap, and rhymes. There's no chorus, it's only four verses. And if you think about it, on paper, it's the simplest hip-hop record ever made and it's just so magical because if an alien came from out of space like, 'What is hip-hop?' I would play them “Sucker M.C.'s.” So, for me, it was really important for that reason, to set off this particular volume with that record.

Another record that's really important to me is Arrested Development "People Everyday." It's not only one of my favorite hip-hop records of all-time, it's one of my favorite records of all-time, it just simply exudes joy and celebration. And Speech is not only an incredible rapper, but an incredible singer and his voice is just simply something you can feel. He's uplifting, he's truly a unifying spirit and I'm so happy he was willing to get down 'cause he really brings the celebration to this.

"Hip Hop Hooray," which closes out Vol. 2, is really important to me. As a child, I worshipped the ground Treach walked on. I thought Treach was the coolest person to ever walk the face of this earth. And Treach and Vinnie are the sweetest guys, I've known them since I was a child and they've always been really supportive of me and my career and that song is special. No matter where you go in the world, no matter what music someone loves, no matter how old they are, no matter who they are, no matter where they are, everyone sings along to that chorus and knows exactly what to do with their hands. And there's something really beautiful about that so there's no better song to end this with.

The first two episodes of Pass The Mic have been geared towards celebrating Black icons in music, across various genres. In the age of Black Lives Matter and social injustice, what are your thoughts on how music and the performance of it can help bring forth unity and healing?

I think there is no greater unifying power than music and I think there is no greater healing force than soul music. And soul music doesn't just mean r&b music, it means hip-hop, too, hip-hop comes from soul. And I think we're living in a time of divisiveness, bigotry and of separation and I think we, as humanity, can look to any one thing to uplift people and unify, it would be music. And you mentioned Black music, my life wouldn't be what it is without the music of Black artists, hip-hop and R&B has defined my life in so many ways, and not only in my career. It's my source of inspiration, it's my source of culture, it's my source of style, it's really my source of happiness. And it's through the music of soul artists and hip-hop artists that I've been able to travel the world and make people dance and make people smile.

What do you see Pass The Mic evolving into moving forward and what do you hope viewers walk away with after viewing an episode of Pass The Mic?

I hope people walk away feeling uplifted, that's it. That's the goal, to uplift. And by sharing these records in a unique way, I've been able to uplift, then I've done my job. The magic is in the music and I'm just a messenger. What do I see for the future? Well, at this point, sky's the limit. I didn't anticipate quite an emotional response from people and it's been quite overwhelming. As I said, this was a little passion project to stay creative, to connect with my heroes and to put a smile on a few faces and it turned into something bigger than I could've ever imagined. There's certainly gonna be more volumes and what the future has in store, we shall see.

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