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NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight

Burgeoning R&B starlet, H.E.R., opens up about her journey to and through music. 

H.E.R. doesn’t believe in hiding. “If you know who I am, then you know who I am.” These words flow unflinchingly from the mouth of the singer-songwriter whose bewitching vocals remain unassigned to a face. Holed up inside Bowery Ballroom, away from the hundreds outside itching to witness her in person, she stares at herself in a tiny wall mirror in the artist washroom, prepping to be seen.

Her makeup is professionally done today—elegant falsies flutter with each blink, and caramel skin glows beneath subtle blush and Fenty Beauty highlight—but 20-year-old H.E.R. is a DIY gal at heart, opting to be her own hair stylist. She parts the Red Sea of fluffy waves draping past her shoulders with her fingers, then patiently rakes a paddle brush through each section. She takes her time, pulling each inch-sized bundle of strands out to its full length, finger-detangling it before tightly twirling it around the curling wand. As she makes her way from nape to crown creating the voluminous spirals her fans have come to know, the plainness of the makeshift glam room is reflected behind her. The grungy white closet-like space is bare with the exception of one lone blue bar of soap in a stand up shower she absolutely will not use. Right now, she and her mane are a quiet source of vibrancy.

“The point is not hiding,” she continues, clarifying that her professional presentation isn’t indicative of her not wanting to be known or seen. Smart fans know that H.E.R. (or “Having Everything Revealed”) and Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, who signed to RCA Records at 14 years old, are the same person. So much can be confirmed by perusing her online catalogue of ASCAP songwriting credits. And she’s completely fine with that. Identity is beside the point. “The point is about not being so secretive. Listen to the music and accept that for what it is. Don’t worry about who’s singing it. Don’t worry about who’s sending the message.”

As evidenced by her self-titled 2017 debut—H.E.R.’s 21 tracks fuse two prior EPs plus six new songs—these vivid messages span from shutting down friend-zoned suitors (“I Won’t”), two-timing a two-timer (“2”) and falling for empty “Wyd?” texts (“Free”) to entertaining selfish lovers (“U”), being symbolically walled out (“Let Me In”) and simply wanting to be acknowledged (“Focus”). “There was no pressure when creating [H.E.R.] Volume 1 and 2," she says. "All it was, was pure emotion.”

It’s emotion straight from the heart and, sometimes, straight from the bedroom. A poet by origin, H.E.R.’s risqué requests are gift wrapped in cunning couplets and elegant verbiage. “Baby, the sound of you/Better than a harmony/I want you off my mind/And on me,” she fantasizes on “Every Kind of Way.” ”I think presenting [sensuality] in clever ways makes it universal,” the chanteuse explains. “When you say things that people are afraid to say, then that’s when it touches people the most. My approach is really just honesty and clever ways of saying things that we are afraid to say.”

“Pigment,” which feels more like a tumbling of candid thoughts than a song, is delivered in both measured spoken word and moody melodies, splicing her realizations that in relationships, nothing lasts forever:

I'm still lost, holding in all of the anger at the bottom of the ocean
And I thought you'd be my savior
I was distracted, unaware of his behavior
But when I started drowning I didn't know he was the anchor

Her songwriting is so detailed that it’s easy for listeners to feel included in the specific moment that affected her, confronting the very people who made her feel the way she did. “It’s crazy, because someone that I wrote ‘Losing’ about actually heard the song and said, ‘Are these about real life situations?’” H.E.R. rolls her eyes and lets out a laugh. “That’s the thing about being an artist, you just lay it out. I’m not responsible for what you did. I could tell all, it’s your fault.”

H.E.R. stops brushing and glances away from her reflection often to make eye contact while chatting, invested in the present moment. Listening. Responding. These traits are vital to her creative process (aside from lavender scented candles in the studio). “Conversation is my way of writing,” she says. Whether they occur in the studio—an unplanned run-in and vibe session with Daniel Caesar led to their heart-wrenching ballad, “Best Part”—or in various geographic locations, magic comes from honest and authentic encounters.

It’s one of the reasons she fell in love with New York. “I can walk outside the door and there is inspiration right there,” the Brooklyn resident says, before name-dropping her second hideaway. “But Nashville is one of my favorite places because the people there that I’ve gotten to know just take out their guitars and have a conversation, and that’s how I like to write. Just talk.”

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The Vallejo, Calif. native was practically destined to be where she is right now. Music embedded itself into her pint-sized body from both sides of the family tree. “Keep On,” the first song she can remember writing, came from a simple writing prompt her mother gave her. “She said, ‘You should write a song about never giving up’—something basic that you would give a little kid—and I wrote this hook,” she explains. “It was seven-year-old-style, but it was still amazing. People were like, ‘woah, she’s gifted,’ because not many people understand song structure, verse, chorus, bridge and hooks.”

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Thanks to her Filipino mom, family get-togethers weren’t complete without karaoke (“They love karaoke. I sing a lot of Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey ballads,” H.E.R. says). In addition to honing in on her vocals, baby H.E.R. was picking up instruments and listening to the blues with her musician father, Kenny Wilson, who founded the local Northern California rhythm and blues band, Urban Bushmen. “Guitar! No, was it piano?” she says, trying to recall the instrument she gravitated to first. During H.E.R.'s live stage sets now, audience members are not only treated to silky soft vocals and choir elite riffs, but electric guitar and keyboard breakouts. “It was definitely piano. I would sit on my dad's lap and I would just be playing anything that came to mind.”

By her own admission, H.E.R. was an outspoken child who knew exactly what she wanted, so when it later came to her growing into music, she knew exactly who she wanted to be as an artist: a multi-hyphenate. “I wanted to be Prince because he played all the instruments. I wanted to appeal to pop music, R&B music. I wanted to be genreless because Prince is genreless. He doesn’t do anything specifically for one genre. I wanted to be Lauryn Hill and touch the women and be empowering. Alicia Keys [is] the same way. She was different because she could play classical piano, sing and also appeal to women. That was what I feel like I modeled myself after.”

Because of that razor focus, H.E.R.’s stage presence is a force to be reckoned with. At Bowery, casually clad in a camouflage adidas anorak jacket, black lace-up jeans, gum-soled PUMAs and white rimmed shades, she comes out strutting, fluffing and shaking her flaming mane constantly. Her shape-shifting aura jumps from gospel devout to neo-soul savant to electric guitar-strumming rock star in the span of an hour. When she’s not bound to her instrument of choice—she juggles time seated at the piano, standing at the mic, with her guitar in-hand and drumming away behind the on-stage production tools—she's dancing around the stage, switching her hips, dropping low and scrunching up her face in delight of her own music.

H.E.R. has a few curveballs in her, too. Halfway through the night’s set, she ducks to the back of the stage, leaving surprise guest ASAP Ferg to turn up with the already rowdy crowd with his 2017 gem, “Plain Jane.” Labelmate Ro James and singers Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, who left from performing with Jhene Aiko that same night, also look on from the crowd.

New York marks the tenth stop on The Lights On Tour, which started up right after a 27-city late summer stint supporting Bryson Tiller and Metro Boomin’s Set It Off Tour. Between breaths, she tells the audience how blessed she feels to be standing there, drowning in applause all for her. “I’m on my first headlining show and I'm receiving so much love,” she says. "As you should!" an enthusiastic woman (one of many that evening) yells back from the front row.

“I mean, there are definitely times where I’m like, oh shoot, I’m tired,” H.E.R. says, reflecting on her back-to-back time on the road, “but I’m so thankful for all of this stuff that I’ve been waiting for such a long time. I'd rather be busy than be bored.”

Before H.E.R.’s reemergence in 2016, Gabi Wilson had long been waiting in the wings at RCA for her turn. When artists enter a hiatus, speculators immediately assume the worst: They were locked into a contract they couldn’t get out of. More important signees took precedence. The talent lost their actual talent. Failed efforts to launch a career, caused the label to deem them shelf dust. H.E.R. insists that was far from her reality.

“People would say, ‘You’re gonna be shelved.’ I was signed for so long but I needed to find myself,” she says. “It’s not like I was waiting for something to happen, I’ve been working for something to happen.” Aside from being told that she’s too young for the subject matter of her music (“Sometimes it’s hard to receive a message from someone below you and a lot younger than you”), the most hurtful thing she’d heard was that she was never going to come out.

“I’m gonna come out when I’m ready,” she continues. “And I was ready. I’ve been with my management company since I was a little girl. They manage a lot of different female artists: Alicia Keys, K. Michelle, Keyshia Cole. Even Tyrese. Growing up under them and watching them, I was always waiting for my turn. Watching them blossom made me feel like I can’t wait until I get mine.”

And right now is the right time, indeed. When H.E.R. shared her LP last year, she was surrounded by brilliant works released by women unafraid to walk in their truths and put unfiltered thoughts on front street. “I feel like the women are being more comfortable with being vulnerable. We still have all these issues with inequality as far as the sexes, but I think that women are speaking out even more so and that has a lot to do with it,” she says. “There was an Alicia [Keys] and Mariah [Carey] and Lauryn [Hill] at one point. I think we’re the new generation of that. We’re in a place where we can say whatever. You have Cardi B, and people that are unafraid to be themselves and there is just so much room for that.”

Being that transparent and open hasn’t always been second nature, but the time spent quietly maturing, free from outside commentary, allowed her to find that comfort and confidence she has grown to love about herself.

“I love that I’ve grown into someone that is okay with being human,” she says proudly after some thought. “I love that I’ve grown into someone that is honest and comfortable with myself. I think when I was younger, even though I was outspoken, I felt like I had to be perfect. I love that I’ve grown into someone who can celebrate my accomplishments and be happy no matter what the outcome may be. A lot of people take this stuff for granted and I've learned to celebrate. I’m in a very good place.”

H.E.R. wants to keep that same energy going forward with her forthcoming project (which admittedly won’t touch our ears for a while), while also exposing us to the other sonics that makes up her DNA. “[For H.E.R.] I wanted to do something that was for R&B music, but I do so many other things,” she says, acknowledging the neo-soul, alternative R&B energy of her last LP. “But I have songs that can be like Calvin Harris. I have songs that I wanna do with Coldplay. I kinda want to be like Rihanna, who’s genreless. I think there are only two genres: good music and bad music.”

Regardless of how she gives it to you—whether it’s shrouded in mystique, nodding to R&B purism or embracing the hybrid sounds of the new school—expect H.E.R. to give good a** music to you straight. No frills, no chaser.

“Identity hidden or not, it doesn’t really matter,” H.E.R. says firmly, stretching her words for emphasis. “I’m about the music and I’m always gonna be about the music. I’m always going to be me. No matter what, through everything, I want the music to still touch people the same. They can expect the same me through and through.”

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Nicky Jam: A Love Supreme

Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.

What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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A post shared by NICKY JAM (@nickyjampr) on Dec 22, 2019 at 8:40am PST

“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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Courtesy of Management

Meet Wande Coal: The Afrobeats Pioneer Who’s Ready To Reintroduce Himself To The World

Before Wande Coal discovered that singing was his true calling, he had dreams of being one of Missy Elliott’s dancers. The artist, one of the few who laid the foundation of the buzzing musical movement we know coming out of Nigeria today, is ready to make another shift of leveling up his global appeal on the heels of his latest release, “Again.”

The 34-year-old Lagos native, born Oluwatobi Wande Ojosipe, is the multifaceted mind behind afrobeats hits we all know so well—including his 2015 collaboration with Patoranking, “My Woman, My Everything,” his prolific linkup with DJ Tunez in “Iskaba,” as well as the groovy track “So Mi So” produced by Juls. Prior to his steady rise, Wande’s musical foundation began in church, where he picked up the piano and learned how to sing.

Nigeria's innovative take on its pop music scene emerged in the 2000s, and it was in 2007 where the singer, songwriter, and producer would join Mo’ Hits Records after its former founders Don Jazzy and D’Banj noticed him as a dancer in his music videos. He then became a fixture at Nigeria’s top record label at the time, penning some of the biggest hits to come out of the label including D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist”—the single that caught the ear of Kanye West, a moment that contributed to the imminent hype that surrounds the genre today.

In 2009, Wande stepped out with his debut album Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits. The classic LP is home to his timeless singles “Bumper to Bumper” and “Ololufe,” where it was also an indicator of afrobeats being well on its way of going global. A year later at the 2010 Headies (the Nigerian take of the Grammys), Wande would then take home a record five awards for that album. Six years later, Wanted, his second LP dropped and it did not disappoint—with “Baby Hello” being a single of note, produced by Maleek Berry. Since 2017, Wande has consistently dropped solo singles and features that showed growth in his sound and would reveal his continued relevance in afrobeats’ global expansion.

REALMS, due this March, is Wande’s first project in five years, as well as his debut under a new partnership between himself, producer Screwface’s Starstruck Management and indie distributor, EMPIRE. The five-track EP is stacked with solid collaborations with producers including Sarz, London’s Lekaa Beats and Melvitto—who produced “Again” with Screwface.

“His process is crazy,” Melvitto shares. “He'll just go in a room and lock the door and just be in there. You'll hear him singing but you don't know what he's doing in there. Then he'll come back with his laptop and there are 30 voice notes in there that are two minutes long, of just song after song. He'll tell me to take them and find something that I like.”

Melvitto and Wande began to consistently work together after they met while “Iskaba” was in production. The producer also adds that “Again” was recorded in New York in August 2018, with parts of the track recorded in London and Nigeria.

“It's definitely a different record,” he continues. “For me, as a fan of Wande Coal, as a fan of music and as a fan of making great music, I always try to push artists to go beyond what they normally do outside of what they know. Wande's voice is so crazy—people don't get to hear it that often since he does more uptempo things. But with giving him the opportunity to have him sing on a slower song, you have to pay attention to his voice.”

Tina Davis, EMPIRE’s head of A&R, wholeheartedly agrees. “It's infectious,” she says. “When you're in A&R, you're hearing [a track] in its rough stages. I love it when I can hear a record from that point and see or know where it can go. Every time I listened to the record I wanted to hear it again—no pun intended. I love what he's saying. I think we need more records about women that are supportive of women, positive and records that show love. I think the world needs a lot more love today.”

Although Wande Coal is renowned, there are still pockets of the pop music market that have yet to get to know him. For Davis, that’s why EMPIRE couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him to build a higher platform that reflects where he started as well as his contribution to music. “He’s extremely talented and I feel like he hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves,” she adds. “And people are stepping up for him.”

As much as his collaborators sing his praises, Wande, in turn, does the same for them. He’s one who says so much using few words. His humility is one folks can learn from as it truly takes a village—in conversation, he amplifies those around him in lieu of bigging up himself. Admitting he’s a gentle soul and a loverboy at heart, the crooner pulls from life’s experiences, especially moments of heartbreak, to pour his reflections out in a track like “Again.”

When asked when he truly knew music was the right path for him, he mentions fervently, “I feel so, and I know so.” It’s evident that Wande Coal is in tune with his calling and his purpose. It manifests in his music.

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VIBE: How has linking with EMPIRE been for you as you begin to engage with a wider audience? Wande Coal: It's a great move for me because I never had that—this is a first for me. At first, I thought it was a joke, but now, it's becoming a reality. I'm really blessed and grateful.

"Again" is a standout track in your upcoming release. Your vocals and how you approach melodies are a marker of your impact to afrobeats all these years, and it's a track where the focus is on you. What was your creative process putting the song together? My surroundings, what I go through, my environment, my feelings, my relationships—everything around me inspires me. For "Again," I was going through a lot emotionally. I lost a girl and I'm trying to tell her that I want her back, I don't want to lose her and I want life to change and it's never going to be the same [without] her again.

With the REALMS EP, what inspired you to come out with new music now? It's my first time ever having an international major establishment back me, so it's a good look because it's been long overdue. Now I'm just ready to drop that and show the entire world that I got something in me.

You're an OG in the afrobeats game, but for a lot of folks, this will be their first time realizing that they should've been hip to you long before now. Just looking back on your career from your Mohits days to stepping out on your own, what else should new listeners know about you? Besides all of that, I was first a writer. I wrote, "Why Me," "Oliver Twist" [and] I developed Wizkid and Davido. I wrote songs with Wizkid, I gave Davido the name "OBO"—they both used to live in my house. Davido left school in Atlanta and came to my house [in Nigeria] twice using his school fees. Wizkid came by often too because I had three studios and I was inspiring them. I'm glad I was able to be a role model for them. They're big artists now, alongside Burna Boy and Maleek Berry, and the feelings are mutual. I'm glad they're doing so well.

How have you been able to balance being so multifaceted in Nigeria's music landscape? To me, everybody uses the same type of template, so I decided to always create new sounds to stand out and be different. When you check out songs like "Iskaba" and "So Mi So," it's a different vibe to what everyone is singing. I'm glad that people appreciate it and I'm glad to lead the change since I was there from the start. I stay ready to always change the game and create new sounds. I don't like to sing what I sang before and avoid singing the same lyrics.

When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine Nigeria's pop music scene would become as big and recognizable as it is today? Yes—see, I had a vision. When I met Mohits in 2006 they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was trying to take this music global. Because I listened to the likes of Usher, Akon, T. Pain, Michael Jackson—they inspired me to be what I am today [as an artist]. I decided to fuse both my culture and American culture together. That's why I sound the way I do.

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