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Ken Irish

Tiara Thomas Talks Growth, Lessons From The Music Biz And Living Freely

Tiara Thomas opens up about her musical journey thus far.

Tiara Thomas seems just as relatable-yet-ambiguous in person as she appears to be on social media. Sitting inside the VIBE office, her slender brown frame rocks a pair of high-waisted jeans and a natural-tone striped crop top, which she seamlessly pairs with a black fanny pack, worn cross-body style and a black beret tilted just right atop her head.. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s free-spirited disposition is a proudly flaunted souvenir from her journey through self-discovery and the music business.

Thomas is fresh off tour with H.E.R., yet the expectation of a fatigued mood is met with an energetic attitude. The tour was the first time Thomas left the country, hitting stages at venues all around Europe and the UK, with who she calls her “little sister." “We've been working together for years,” Thomas says of H.E.R. “I've written so many songs with her that she just got in the vault when she was just starting out, and she was just needing help writing songs. She would come through my sessions and lay little ideas down.”

Thomas and H.E.R go way back. They had the same manager when they met; H.E.R. was 15 years old and Thomas just signed with their management team, MBK Entertainment. They also collaborated on a song, one of Thomas’ old joints, “Satellite Shawty.” “We're all family. We've all known each other for years. The tour manager, we're all family,” she says. “We're really close. But that was fun, that was a good experience.”

The Indiana native is gearing up for a tour of her own to help promote F**king With My Mind, her latest EP which was released in March. Tracks on the project dive deep into nagging thoughts about sensuality, success and relationships that frequent Thomas’ mind. She told Billboard that penning some songs from the EP like “I Need” was therapeutic.

“I'm somebody who lives in my head a lot. I think a lot. Sometimes I overanalyze stuff,” she told Billboard. “When I wrote that song I was trying to bring myself out of something. Sometimes I try to bring myself out of something even if I'm not talking about it in a good way, but just talking about it period helps me out of it.”

Visuals for “I Need” and a closer listen to the rest of FWMM reveal androgynous lyrics, but Thomas said she purposefully doesn’t make an effort to dispel the hush and whispers about her sexuality. She said this is not a coming out, but she wants her music to be bigger than her sexual preference. If that means keeping people guessing, it is what it is.

“It's like that [sexuality] becomes bigger than the music, or it becomes bigger than anything else,” she says. “I don't like that. I don't like that at all. I don't want anything to be bigger than my music. I don't want my looks to be bigger than my music… It's cool if you think I like girls, it's cool if you think I like guys. It's cool, whatever. I like to wonder about people.” With buzzed hair dyed pink and a style uneasily categorized, Thomas said she can understand the confusion, but it’s only a part of her self-expression. Maintaining individuality as an R&B singer is her main concern, despite the constant pressure from the music industry.

“If you're an R&B singer, you gotta have the starter pack R&B kit. You gotta have the long weave,” Thomas explains. “That's cool, that's fine, but I don't want to be like [that]. I want to do what I want to do, and from the back, I’mma look like Soulja Boy, and from the front I’mma be cute.”

Thomas credits her nonconformist attitude to her sheltered upbringing. She says growing up in a very religious household gave her anxiety about every deviant thought and decision made, until one day she finally let it all go. The singer carried the same energy throughout her career, and it’s allowed her to learn a few things: trust your instincts and be unapologetically authentic.

“Some [artists], you can write all their songs and they'll be on vacation and listen to a bunch of songs and are like ‘Okay I want to sing all these songs,'” she says. “And that's fine, but I don't want to do that. I don't want to do music if I have to do it like that.”

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Gary Gershof

Jeremy O. Harris Is Prepared To Make You Uncomfortable With 'Slave Play'

September is a tricky time in New York City. Some days the ninth month can be charming with its cool breeze and clear skies, you forget Old Man Winter is three months away. Other days, September is deceitfully chilly dropping 10 or 15 degrees after sunset. You hug yourself to create warmth and to also block shame for not knowing summer has packed its bags. On the fifth day of September in New York’s East Village, the weather, however, is kind. Clouds like stretched cotton balls float through the sky, while the sun peeks through adding just enough heat without being arresting. It was, like Bill Withers described, a lovely day.

The beauty of the weather was only matched by Jeremy O.Harris’ bold yet inviting presence. Wearing head-to-toe Telfar Clemens, the Yale School of Drama playwright mingled with friends, castmates and the press inside the penthouse suite of The Standard. Holding the last puffs of a loosie and a black purse, O’Harris and I make eye contact. He smiles. I wave and a second later he's pulled into another round of congratulations, cheek kisses, and praise.

Such is the life of an award-winning playwright.

Harris’ production Slave Play earned chatter while at the New York Theater Workshop and has since made its way to Broadway, making the 30-year-old the youngest playwright of color to accomplish the feat. Yet before the mecca to the world's theatrical stage, Slave Play merited quite the hubbub and scathing critiques for its plot. Set on the MacGregor plantation in the antebellum south, three interracial couples work through their relationship woes made present by their sexual disconnect.

And that’s all that will be said about Slave Play. The rest must be witnessed to be understood or at least examined. Harris knows the play will make many uncomfortable and he's okay with that. The Virginia native stands at a towering 6-foot-5 and has always known his mere presence was off-putting to some. Add his Afro to the mix and Harris, a black queer man with hair that defies gravity, is too much to digest. Thankfully, he doesn't care.

He walks over to the terrace and we both lean in for a hug but stop prematurely and settle on a professional yet distant handshake.

“Are you a hugger?” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles.

Relief. Huggers finally able to hug.

O’Harris is pressed for time so we only chat for 15 minutes but we gag over both being Geminis, talk about white discomfort, why, of all names to give a play, was Slave Play the best choice and whether or not white America can fully love black people.

--

VIBE: When creating Slave Play was white discomfort ever a thought?

Jeremy O. Harris: I had this moment with someone the other day and we were talking about the importance of mirrors and seeing each other inside the mirrors of the set. Well, the reason the idea came about was because at Yale the theater was in a three-quarter thrust and the second year project is one of the smallest projects to do. The audience, I think, is 70 people every night. It wasn’t a huge audience, maybe 90, I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s a three-quarter thrust. I went to Yale at a historic time. There were more people of color there than at any other time. The craziest thing about the show for me was while watching, I saw all the people of color checking in with one another throughout the play and them having these moments of revelation together and looking at white people like, "Why are you laughing then?"

I make people uncomfortable. I make people who are straight uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do, I do loudly by accident.

What’s your sign? I’m a Gemini.

Oh my God! I’m a Gemini. When’s your birthday? June 2nd.

I'm June 17. (Laughs) I think being a Gemini is also part of why I live loudly. I don’t shy away from who I am. My hair has always been big. People might eroticize my hair or fetishize my hair but they’re still uncomfortable by it because their hair can’t do this. Also, because I went to predominately white institutions as a child, I learned quickly that my intellect made people uncomfortable.

Were you usually the smartest one in the room? Yeah, or at least the teacher would say that. I think part of the problem with growing up in the south is everything is so racialized, even compliments. It would be "he’s smarter than the white kids and the black kids."

Did you have any other names for the play besides Slave Play? For me, titles are what make a play and the minute I thought of this play was the minute I was thinking about all of the different slave films. The first thing I thought about was on Twitter there was this whole discussion about 12 Years of Slave with people saying, "Why do we always have to be in a slave movie?" and then I thought, "Oh, a slave movie. There are so many slave plays...Oh, Slave Play!

There’s a litany of narratives that can come from that and a litany of histories that come from that. I was like, "Let me try and make something that was the end all be all of these histories" for at least me. It doesn’t have to be the end all be all for the next writer who wants to interrogate these similar ideas and similar histories, but it gets to be my one foray into this question.

I saw Slave Play off-Broadway and it was a lot to take in. However, I think the play isn’t so much about interracial relationships as it is white people’s relationship with black people. Am I correct?

I think you are. I’ve never written a play that’s going to be about one thing.

Because you aren’t one thing.

Exactly. One of my professors said the problem with a lot of American writers is that they write plays that function like similies. This is like this, whereas in the U.K. and Europe and a lot of places I love, those places function like metaphors. I wanted to have a play that functioned as a metaphor. So it’s not like, "Being in an interracial couple is like..." It’s "An interracial couple is" and it becomes a container for a lot of different histories and a lot of different confluences of conflict which I think are important.

Relationships can become an amazing space of interrogation for a lot of our interpersonal relationships, our historical relationships and our thematic, deeply guarded emotional truths that we haven’t worked out on a macro, but we can work them out on this microcosm of a relationship in a way like white-American politics and black-American politics are also in this weird symbiotic relationship.

Do you think white America can ever fully love black people?

I think love is something that’s beyond words. I think its something we have to only know in action in the same way that I don’t know if black America will or should ever love white America, do you know what I mean? How do you love something that’s harmed you so deeply?

Super facts.

But then again, if we’re using relationships as metaphors, [then] we’ve seen people try and make sense of that love in a lot of different ways. You see black America’s relationship to capitalism, which is something that benefits whiteness more than it could ever benefit us, yet there is this sort of weird romance that happens in so much of our music. So much of our literature and so much of our art, with the idea of capitalism even with its own interrogation and criticisms. But there is this weird push and pull. It’s similar to someone who’s in this battered relationship with an ex-lover.

I read you didn’t expect to receive so much criticism from the black community. How did that make you feel? 

It made me feel sad and reflective in a lot of ways. I wanted to make theater for a certain audience and, for me, the best vehicle for making theater for that audience was the Internet. I was like, "How can I flood the Internet with these ideas about what my plays are so I can maybe get a new audience into the theater with more excitement?" And that worked in a certain way. What I didn’t take into account was that I basically asked everyone to learn how to ride a horse bareback without ever learning the fundamentals of riding a horse.

People were interrogating the ideas on the Internet of what this play might be without an understanding of how the theater functions, and so I think that made them feel very displaced from what this play was, and when you feel displaced from something you have to react to it. I don’t blame anyone for their reactions to the title or the images they saw. Some of those images aren’t images I would’ve ever wanted people to interrogate without the context of the theater. In hindsight, I now know, like, "Okay, cool." I do this experiment and I saw some of the false positives of it and I saw the actual positives of it and now I can move on and keep building and repair the relationship. I get to now watch it with more careful eyes.

What questions do you hope white people ask themselves?

I think the whole play is about: how can people listen in a way that’s not shallow but deeply? I think at this moment a lot of white theater audiences believe they’re listening deeply to the black artists that are having this moment right now. But I think when you read the words they write about it, and the quickness with which they have an opinion about it, you recognize they’re not listening deeply. So quickly they’re telling us what they think we said and it’s like, "No, take a second, and let us speak on it." Take a step back.

Slave Play is playing at the John Golden Theater. Get your tickets here.

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Lil Wayne performs at the 2019 Outside Lands music festival at Golden Gate Park on August 09, 2019 in San Francisco, California.
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Lil Wayne Talks ‘Ghost Recon Breakpoint’ Game, ‘Funeral’ Sessions And More

When Lil Wayne released his long-delayed Carter V and resolved his legal differences with Cash Money Records a year ago, he could have walked into the sunset and ended his career as one of the greatest artists ever. He’s put more than 20 years of his life into music, starting his career as a fresh-faced teenager in the mid-90s and going nonstop with more than 30 albums and mixtapes, an all-time great run of guest verses, a relentless touring schedule, and an indelible impact on the other rappers who have come after him. But Tunechi is still staying just as active, both in the booth and outside of it. 2019 alone has seen him launch a collection with American Eagle, continue his annual Lil Weezyana Fest for the fifth year, and tour with Blink 182 while releasing mashups of their previous work.

But today, Wayne is speaking with VIBE about another one of his passions: video games. He’s doing commercials for Ubisoft’s upcoming Ghost Recon Breakpoint, the 11th game in Tom Clancy’s tactical shooter franchise, slated for an Oct. 4 release. The ads see Wayne showcasing his hilarious personality, playing online with a team of other players and throwing jokes while consistently letting them down with phone calls and other distractions.

“That’s happened more than a few times, when you play games a lot, especially with your homies, and everybody’s on some sort of team and everybody’s counting on everybody,” Wayne tells VIBE over the phone. “It doesn’t even have to be a phone call. It can be somebody at the door, it can be your mom screaming at you, anything.”

Artists have historically relied on video games to pass the time during their tours, and Wayne has always been known for his adoration for the Madden NFL series. He’s a die-hard sports fan, as seen from his social media and his appearances on sports talk shows with his friend Skip Bayless. Years ago, T-Pain said he saw Wayne and Cash Money co-founder Birdman bet up to $10,000 on games, while letting the computer battle it out to see who wins – like sports betting, but you get to pick each other’s competition.

“I don’t recall that,” Wayne laughs when asked if T-Pain’s statements were true. “I don’t recall letting the computer play for no $10,000, but we definitely probably played each other for something like that. … I’m sure I didn’t lose that $10,000 bet whenever it happened. I don’t think I’ve lost too much. I’d say about $500 would be the biggest loss I’ve had, if anything. Maybe $1,000. But I’m putting the [cheat] code in on you and everything for that $10,000.”

These days, while Wayne says that Drake and Birdman have made games tough for him in terms of other artists, he admits that his biggest competition is at home.

“If I’m playing an artist, I’m only practicing against you to get better against my kids. You gotta stay superior on stuff like that,” he chuckles. His sons are aged 10, 9 and 9, “but think they’re 21 and 22.” “My sons, they like to play vintage, so I have to go back and get a team that was great in the year of the team that they pick. My middle son’s vintage team is the LA Rams, my youngest son, Meatball, is going to go with the Atlanta Falcons from the year that Deion Sanders was playing, and my oldest son, Tune, is going to go with the Bengals when they had Boomer Esiason.”

Wayne also spoke about the Top 50 rap lists that have been circulating this summer. While he’s cited Jay-Z as his GOAT before, he took time to give credit to Missy Elliott as one of his favorite rappers and described her impact using another sports analogy.

“A lot of people, their eyes widen up when I say that. If I placed her, there may be a question. It shouldn’t be, though,” Wayne says. “When Missy came out, everybody was rapping about the same things, and everybody [in each region] was trying to get better at the same things, one type of style, in my eyes. … Missy came out way from Virginia on some other shit, making sounds. Her and Timbaland were like Tom Brady and Bill Bellichick.”

His rap bonafides are unquestionable, but Wayne has also dabbled in rock: his tour with Blink 182 was paired with a mashup of his song “A Milli” and the band’s “What’s My Age Again,” and he released his own rock album Rebirth in 2010. When asked if he would consider making another rock album, Wayne said he liked the idea.

“I would definitely want some help on it this time. I did that one by myself. The most help I got, I consider her like another mom, is [soul/R&B singer] Ms. Betty Wright. She taught me a few strings, a few chords on the guitar, how to hold a few notes,” Wayne reveals. “I would definitely fuck with Blink, I’d let Travis go crazy on one or two of them bitches. … I would love to go back and do some vintage songs on it this time as well. I would have to get some clearances on one or two songs from a band or an artist we all love, and do it like that. I’m trying to see what’s up with a Nirvana song or something. Try to get my Kurt Cobain on.”

The Young Money Entertainment founder also says that despite a lack of updates, he and Drake still plan to make an album together.

“We’re both doing what we do, but he already know,” Wayne says. “We still text and send songs here and there, change a verse because he killed me or change a verse ‘cuz I killed him. It’s still the same competition.”

While those two projects are good interview fodder, Wayne’s 13th studio album Funeral is further along – he’s said in the weeks after this interview that he plans to release it by the end of the year. It’ll be his first collection of new, timely music in at least four years, and he says his recording process has changed drastically since his prolific mixtape days.

“I love the difficulty of trying to fit in with what’s going on today, making sure I sound likable to the ears today and having to remind myself that it’s not about what it was back then. Going to the studio now, for me, is awesome. I used to go to that mufucka and do 12 songs a night. Cut a beat on, I’m going to go and you let me know when to stop,” Wayne says.

“It’s different now. I can’t wait to get in the studio now every night, just to see what I can come up with. [Before] it was just me going to the studio and saying, let me kill ten more songs and then I’m going to go home or do whatever I was doing. Now, it’s let me see what I come up with. Self-discovery, rebirth – call it whatever you want to call it but it feels awesome, I swear to God.”

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Stanley Nelson Lays Bare The Complicated Cool Of Miles Davis

Miles Davis had it. Whatever it was, Miles Davis was the sole proprietor. The aura, skill, and style that oozed from Davis’ pores helped propel the trumpeter to stardom. His musical accomplishments were only made more striking by the swagger that garnished them. Davis’ cool, projected best on stage, was an unwavering confidence with a dollop of syrupy charisma. Even his voice, a sandpaper-like whisper, which came as a result of yelling after throat surgery, weaved its way into the mythological-like figure Davis became. To be frank, Miles Davis was a cool-ass motherfucker and he knew it.

Yet underneath Davis’ cool was a man equally tormented by the second-class citizenship his country forced on him, as well as his own personal demons. Standing up to the racist government sometimes proved easier than defeating his alcoholism and drug abuse. Those closest to Davis felt his venom whenever he bit, and graciously allowed their love for him to be a balm for the wounds he left. How could the same man who composed and performed Kind of Blue be responsible for the cruelty of those who loved him so?

Well, it’s complicated.

Director Stanley Nelson lays Miles Davis bare—his good, bad, and beautiful—to a new generation while crystalizing the jazz musician’s legend to longtime fans with Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. Nelson’s latest demonstrates Davis' complexity and all that he endured.

Nelson invited VIBE to his 5,000-square-foot Harlem office to discuss Davis. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the nearly two-hour film, Nelson offers a firm handshake and an even stronger espresso. He apologizes for not having much sugar but makes up for it with a Wicker basket full of snacks that sits atop his white granite kitchen island. I opt for cookies and sneak the last bag of white cheddar popcorn for the train ride back to the office.

As we walk past the stainless steel appliances and through the dining room, the September sun shines bright through windows striking the white living room walls. Several books about Frederick Douglass are neatly stacked on the dining room table. Nelson reveals the writer and abolitionist will be the subject of his next feature, but for now, the 68-year-old director is entrenched in promotion for Miles Davis, an artist he says “transcends music.”

In between sips of tea, Nelson explains why Davis will always be a figure worth examing,

VIBE: What is your definition of cool? Stanley Nelson: I think the definition of cool changes with the times. I think cool is a certain calmness and being ahead of the times. It’s also a certain sophistication, I think Miles Davis had for so much of his life personified.

What do you think are some of the ingredients that go into making a Miles Davis? I don’t think there are very many people, across all genres, who can compare to Miles Davis. Miles Davis did what he did for five decades and was a leader in so many different movements in music and in jazz. Miles Davis transcends music.

What do you mean when you say "Miles Davis transcends music?" Miles Davis transcended the music because he was a leader in the way he looked, in the way he dressed, in things he demanded as you can see in the film. He demanded that he be treated with an amount of respect. The fact that he had black women on the covers of his albums, all those kinds of things made Miles Davis so different from so many other jazz musicians, who we love and admire for their music. We love and admire Miles Davis for his music, but it wasn’t just the music that made Miles Davis special.

Miles was also undeniably a beautiful looking man, and this was in the 50s and 60s. Miles Davis had very dark skin which was something that was not in the general public how it was thought of, so Miles kind of flipped that on its head.

This is going to sound like a dumb question but I have to ask it anyway. Why did you decide to honor Miles Davis with this film? There are a lot of reasons for making this film. There are a lot of reasons for making any film so whenever filmmakers tell you there’s only one reason they’re probably just lying, or saying whatever their publicist wants them to say. For one, his music is so incredible I would say he is easily one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, maybe the most important, you can argue that in any genre. Two, I’m a jazz lover and three Miles Davis is a very complicated individual so it makes for a better film. It’s not a simple story. I also think as we got into the film that Miles Davis’ story isn’t only about music, but it's about being a black person in the second half of the 20th century in the United States and I think that’s what makes the film work on a different level than a lot of other jazz films.

Veering off from Mr. Davis for a bit, how do you decide which topics or events you want to turn into films? You’ve done the black press, you’ve done a story about The Black Panthers, you did a story about Emmett Till. How do you choose which one to make into a film?

One of the great lessons for me was the first film I made called Two Dollars and A Dream. It was about Madame C.J. Walker and it took me seven years to make the film and I realize at that point films can take a long time to make, to raise the money and actually get the films made, so it's really important that the film be important to me, at least, that’s part of how I think about films when I think about what to do next. I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to paint on a big canvas so I’m trying to make stories that are big. I’m not just making small stories.

Did you always have this mentality of making big stories? I think so. I think part of that was unspoken, not really something I thought of. If you make something you want it to be a success, you want it to be a big success especially if it's going to take seven or 10 years of your life.

Why was Carl Lumbly the one you picked to voice Davis? Carl Lumbly is a great actor and he’s someone that I knew. Carl did the narration for one of our other films a long time ago, so Carl is someone I thought of. We sent him a bunch of tapes of Davis’ actual voice, and he practiced and we got back to him in a week and asked him to give us his Miles Davis voice over the phone and when he did, we were like, that’s good. It wasn’t perfect, but we could make it work.

What I personally loved about the film was that you didn’t glance over Miles Davis’ bitter personality. I loved the interviews with Frances Taylor, but it broke my heart that the creator of Kind of Blue forced his dancer wife to drop out of West Side Story. Miles was not an easy guy.

That’s putting it mildly. I think it was important that we tell that part of the story. I think what makes his story so rich and emotional there’s that dichotomy with Miles. The man that made some of the most beautiful music ever created and then was so rough for so many people. How do those things exist? Miles basically ruined Frances’ career by pulling her out of this show.

Yes! He was abusive to her, and after a few years they broke up. Her career had been ruined. I think one of the things that was so great for us while making the film was that Frances was so resilient and so beautiful and so funny in the film. You realize he tried but he couldn’t break her. I should say that Frances passed away Thanksgiving of last year. It was such a joy to be with Frances and interview her.

What do you hope people who don’t know Miles Davis will take away from the film and what do you hope people who do know Miles Davis will learn? One of the challenges of making any film, especially a film about Miles Davis, some people come in thinking there’s everything to know about Miles Davis. Some people come in and say "Miles who? Why’d you drag me to the theater?" You’ve got to walk that line and tell everybody something new and also be entertaining.

My mission in this film is partly to entertain. I don’t care how much you know about Miles. If you walk into this film and it’s two hours long you’re going to learn something new, or it’s going to be told to you in a different way. Certainly you’ve never been exposed to Frances. Just being exposed to Frances in and of itself is a trip. Part of the job is to entertain and frankly, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool is in select theaters. Click here

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