Courtesy of Scott McDermott/HBO

HBO's 'Notes From The Field' Brilliantly Illuminates The School-To-Prison Pipeline

This one-woman off-Broadway play shows what happens when a government punishes a people for the poverty they're restricted to and the educational resources they've been denied.

It isn't by happenstance or accidental that black and brown youth in America are pushed outside of the classroom and into prisons. While white students are given detention or a warning for their poor behavior or missed assignments, the same infraction committed by black pupils often results in suspension and then expulsion, which plants seeds for a life in and out of America's prisons.

In 2013, Tony and Pulitzer nominated writer Anna Deavere Smith interviewed 250 people. Of this group, the author/actress selected 18 men, women, students, lawmakers, doctors, educators, pastors and activists, before performing their answers in a one-woman off-Broadway play. Adapted into a film for HBO, Notes From The Field finds Smith embodying the words, phrases, accents, mannerisms, and personalities of her various subjects. Everyone from Baltimore protester Allen Bullock -- who was given a 12-year sentence for destroying a car during the uprisings following Freddie Gray's death -- to Denise Dodson -- a woman serving a life sentence who's found purpose in the dogs she trains -- were among those whose responses were reenacted.

Notes From The Field also demonstrates what happens when a government and society punishes a people for the poverty they've been restricted to, and the educational resources they've been denied. Smith slips from one personality to another in her 90-minute play, taking on the graceful personality and southern tongue of Congressman John Lewis, while in another scene, embodying the forceful nature of Tony Eady, a federal penitentiary worker turned education specialist who rules with an iron fist.

VIBE caught up with Smith at HBO's New York headquarters to discuss the physical demand her one-woman play has placed on her vocal chords, how she's able to not let the frustration and sadness of the show get to her and why Notes From The Field is actually an invitation for change.


VIBE: How do you hold onto the frustration of the school-to-prison pipeline and use it in your art without letting it consume you?
Anna Deavere Smith: I'm an actor, so when I walk into the theater I leave certain aspects of my life and consciousness behind. I get to the theater at 2 o'clock in the afternoon for an 8 o'clock show. I meditate. I pray. I review my lines. I warm up my voice. I warm up my body. Somebody does my hair and makeup and then I go on stage. And it is exhausting and when I leave, I try to leave it all on the stage. I then go home and I take a bath, go to sleep, get up, go to the gym and I start that whole process. The whole point is to just leave it on the stage.

There's footage of a South Carolina deputy violently removing a teenage girl from a chair. Did that not have an effect on you?
I think I'm more affected by the process and speaking the words and embodying the words, for sure. I went to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide and one of the many things that we did was visit a place that still had the corpses. There was a mass grave, and they dug up the mass grave and they had a chemical way of saving the corpses. I and the photographer that I was with were walking around--Rwandans speak in very soft voices--so our guide was like 'Look at this one. You can see from his head he was crying.' At one point we looked at one corpse and it was like that [Edvard Munch] painting The Scream. Either I said it to my friend the photographer, or she said it to me, 'it's like The Scream' and we caught ourselves. This is not a work of art, this is real. This was a real human being, and you kind of have to cut yourself off from looking at the aesthetics of it.

Which one of the interviewees was the hardest to embody and translate on stage? And which one was the most liberating?
Everybody's hard, but I think learning Allen [Bullock] and Kevin [Moore] were challenging. They were challenging because of my desire to be meticulous. Kevin used the expression 'You know what I'm saying?' a lot and you can't just put it any old way. You have to say it the way he says it.

Like punctuation, almost. 
Yes. It's not everywhere, so where is it really? And with Allen who's 10 years younger, it's 'You feel me?' I had somebody who came to every single show every night and then the next day would come to hair and makeup and would say to me 'You didn't say it.' Obviously, [Pastor] Bryant was challenging vocally. To do that every night, and to keep your voice healthy is hard. It's a lot of demand on my vocal chords. I would say everybody presented a different challenge.

I interviewed Pastor Bryant two years ago and it was around the time a string of black churches in the South were being burned down. He told me that the Black Lives Matter movement is the first where the church is not leading it. Do you think this is intentional?
I think the church is ambivalent about it, is my guess. When you look at Freddie Gray's funeral that Pastor Bryant preached over, there's a slide in the background that says Black Lives Matter and he calls no justice no peace at the end of it. We live in a very secular time. Growing up when I did, back in the old days, most black people went to church.

Every Sunday. It's just what you did.
It's what you did. It was the social center and I'm sure that's out of slavery. It was the only time that we were able to be together as a group without that being suspect. We don't live like that anymore. A lot of black people do, but that's not mainstream American life, even when people say things like the most segregated hour in American life is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. It's just not true anymore. With you giving that fact to me, the only religion I'm interested in is radical kindness. That's the religion I'm fighting for.

Tony Eady rules with an iron fist. He's been in situations where he's had to de-escalate things and he once said he thinks officers should be in the school. How did you feel interviewing him knowing that line of thinking aids in the school-to-prison pipeline?
I was crazy about Tony Eady. Interestingly enough, I knew there were black people in the audience if they laughed during Tony Eady's part.

Oh yeah. I think black people of a certain generation really identify with Tony Eady because I think the idea of discipline used to be a big deal in the black community.

You don't think it's still a big deal?
Not in the same way. I mean, you came in here and you said Ms. Smith. Nobody calls me Ms. Smith. I'm on Black-Ish. 

Oh, well that's how I was raised.
And I'm very appreciative.

I think in our history we have certain ideas about discipline and respect that I don't know if they exist across the board in the black community right now. Tony Eady's point is: 'I worked in a federal penitentiary in Florida and I want to tell you that this is just a rehearsal, because if you don't learn to keep your mouth shut, that's really where you're going to be, and that's where people want you to be and let me tell you, when you get on that bus, and they're driving you out to that penitentiary, you're not going to be the same person you were when you got on that bus.' So to me, Tony Eady's ruling with that fist is because he does not want them to go there, and to him, he sees kids being disrespectful to the principal of the school. He knows that's not going to end well so he's trying to keep that from happening. You can say he rules with a fist, but I think it's more than that. I think Tony Eady's trying to save lives.

With all the hurt and pain that's happening under our current administration, why should someone sit down on a Saturday night and watch Notes From The Field as opposed to seeing Black Panther?
Well, they should go see Black Panther [LAUGHS]. I haven't seen it yet, but as soon as this press tour is over, I will. These two things aren't mutually exclusive. Why do you think they are? Why did you put the two in the same sentence?

Because I feel like under this administration if you are a person of color, if you are any minority, you are told every day your life does not matter. To see Black Panther and to see these beautiful black men and women on the screen proving their lives matter is a wonderful feeling. Your one-woman play is amazing and well-thought-out, but it's also a harsh reality. Why should someone invest in this much needed medicine as opposed to Black Panther which is a spoonful of sugar?
Oh, that's interesting. Well, because this reality didn't start with Trump.

It goes as far back as Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Notes on The State of Virginia, even though he's only talking about white boys, nonetheless. His plan for public education was to have a system that identified the excellent ones, and I quote 'and throw away the rubbish.' The way that we have sorting mechanisms in schools back that far, and the difficulty of having equal opportunity in education, goes back as far as slavery when we could be shot for reading a book. So to me the reason to watch Notes From The Field, regardless of what's happening in Washington, regardless the crass greed that surrounds all of our lives, is because we are on a continuum that started in violence, that's still in violence. People of means -- by that I mean having a mind and having a heart--who would like us to be free should see the movie in order to see if there's a point of contact or inspiration in that harsh reality that causes them to want to do something to save lives.

Notes From The Field airs on HBO Saturday, Feb. 24

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

View this post on Instagram

Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey


Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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Tyler the Creator attends the 62nd annual GRAMMY Awards on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

11 Takeaways From The 2020 Grammys

There are many factors that go into winning a Grammy, the most coveted music prize of the industry. It’s more than “is the song good?” Sometimes it’s based on campaigning, other times it’s based on what voters feel should be the industry standard. However, the fun doesn’t come until after the ceremony, where all the winners have been revealed and it’s time to process what it all means for the larger picture and the future of recording.

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards was met with controversy this year thanks to a lawsuit against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences from ousted CEO, Deborah Dugan. Through her explosive claims and allegations, the voting process has gotten even less transparent— and we’re left with more questions and mysteries than answers. Still, artists and media moved forward, and the focus has temporarily shifted back to the music and the awards.

Here are 11 takeaways from VIBE that capture the essence of key wins (and snubs) at the Grammy Awards.

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