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Gleveen

Leon Thomas Is Ready To Turn His Idols Into His Fans

The singer-songwriter and 'Insecure' actor opens up about making major career moves.

Since hitting the Broadway stage at 10 years old, singer-songwriter Leon Thomas has been destined for stardom. Not only did Nickelodeon recognize his talent and offer him a production deal that led to him to co-starring in the hit-series, Victorious, but Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds also recognized his rarity after seeing him at work in his studio. After years of incubating in the chambers of childhood stardom, Thomas is ready to emerge from the comfort of his mentor’s wing and to straighten his feathers as an independent artist.

The 21-year-old Grammy Award-winning artist stopped by VIBE to recount his unconventional ascension to stardom, his plans to become Hollywood’s next big, multifaceted entertainer, and how his new music has turned his idols into his fans.

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VIBE: For those who don’t know, can you give people your conception story as a musician?
Leon Thomas: I come from a whole family of musicians. My step dad played for people like B.B. King, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, an old school, New Jack Swing band called Hi-Five. They were a boy band. I grew up around some of the most fire musicians in New York, I grew up Brooklyn. I started doing Broadway at 10 years old with The Lion King. Then I did Carolina Change and The Color Purple with Oprah, which gave me the awesome opportunity to travel to the West Coast, where I met Nickelodeon.

From age 13, they gave me a development deal, which means I got a record deal and they started developing a TV show for me around that time. At 16 years old, I did a show called Victorious. I had an amazing experience doing that. It took me all over the world. It gave me exposure to places like Britain, Germany, Italy, and of course the U.S. After that, I started mentoring under Babyface.

I had a chance to go to college at Morehouse or do this thing under Face. Of course, I took the situation with Face. I told myself, if I was going to be a producer and writer and multifaceted artists, he was the perfect person to do that under. So that’s what I did, man. We found ourselves on some amazing projects from Love, Marriage, Divorce – which was his duet album with Tony Braxton that won a Grammy – to multi-platinum records with Ariana Grande. Just a bunch of different people, Ty Dolla $ign. Post Malone, and now I’m giving myself the opportunity to hop into this artist stuff alone. It’s just a really great situation that I’m in. I locked in with some people at Priority Records, and it just seems like I have a shot to do this independently.

So, you’re independent?
Well, I’m not signed to a major label, but I do have a distribution deal with Priority and they have been awesome. They’ve been doing a lot to make sure the music gets to outlets like VIBE and streaming services. We just hit Billboard—[No.] 26 on the Urban A/C Charts. So, I feel really good about the progression. A lot of people in my position don’t get the opportunities, so I’m feeling blessed.

What was the motive behind being independent?
To be honest, I want attention. Not that I’m a spoiled brat or anything, I just know what it’s like at major labels. When you have Beyoncé and Adele releasing the same month you’re trying to put your first debut out, it could get lost in the sauce. I just felt like I wanted to build my brand up to a place I can’t be ignored.

That’s something Wale spoke about when referencing his label issues. He felt like he wasn’t getting the attention he needed at Atlantic.
Yeah. A lot of artists feel that way and it’s hard. It’s tough.

You seem to have taken the time to craft your sound. Where did that come from? What were your influences?
I’ll tell you where that came from. I was filming Victorious and I had, like, three months to be off and be creative. School had finished earlier, so, I went out to Atlanta and started working with my boy, Novel. We were listening to artists like early James Blake and early Frank Ocean, people like that, and it just opened my mind to different sounds. And that you can let a track almost speak for myself. That minimalist vibe. That kind of built the things that I was crafting for my project. Also, just being hip to people like Kaytranada, early and being in the rooms with people like Post Malone before he popped off. Even chilling around Syd Tha Kid and The Internet. Just to see that real music was being respected and they were touring and doing their own thing, it gave me hope. Because at that time it was very DJ Mustard-heavy—which I have a lot of respect for that stuff—but it doesn’t necessarily fit my sound. So, being able to be unapologetically musical is what I was trying to do, and now I’m getting that chance.

Taking those college years to be around those people and Babyface must have been impactful. What was the most impressionable thing that Babyface taught you during that time?
There’s so much you can gain from exploring every sense of the business. He’s not just focused on writing a hit for Beyoncé, he’s also scoring the new Bobby Brown movie. It’s okay to explore different business opportunities and be versatile. The more you know, the more you can do to diversify your portfolio, and that’s how he has been able to stay afloat. From even signing artists like Outkast and TLC—at the time he wasn’t producing their stuff, but he knew how to find them early on. Even people like Usher, you know, he got it. And seeing how he moves in business, like being friends with the executive before even getting anything from them was a big thing I learned from him. Like just dinners, taking them out to eat! Like what? They’re there for you. [Laughs] You never know but food does a lot!

Is that a direction you want to take it? Like in a position like Face, but your spin on it?
Honestly, man, I see writing and being a part of amazing films. Starring in films as well as doing this music thing. Touring, enjoying that. I also would love to develop artists later in my life. After that, then it’s more so philanthropic efforts. I want to go out and see what I can do to touch the world. Really pay it forward. But I really want to be able to develop people as well.

So acting is not ruled out? I know a lot of actors-turned-musicians turn their back on the camera in that way.
Nah, man! I never did that. Only because I been acting since I was 10. I don’t even know how to feel if I don’t do a project in a year. I’ve never gone a year of my life without doing a project. I have to film something, I have to do something, because that’s a side of me that I can’t ignore.

Do think that aids in your creativity as an all-around artist?
I think it makes it confusing to people who step into the game because I can play anybody, I can do whatever. But when it comes to who I am as an artist, it definitely does help my creative aspects. When I was doing my videos and we were writing out the treatment, it wasn’t just a paragraph, it was a full script, you know what I’m saying? The director knew he couldn’t play around. He had to work. But [he] would also ask my opinions on shots.

That’s real. I was thinking more along the terms of songwriting and song creating. You are able to put yourself in certain settings and invoke certain feelings because you do that in acting.
Oh yeah! What’s crazy is most of my records, the ones that went platinum, were with female artists. That’s one of the coolest things— [I] really put myself in a woman’s shoes or really listen to my girlfriend when she’s telling me what I’m doing wrong, and write a song from her perspective.

I think that interesting to see how intersectional art is.
Yeah, man. I always tell my boys who rap that it’s important to start taking acting classes early because it’s going to happen.

Of all the people you have been around that have gone on to be successful, whose rise was your favorite to witness?
Honestly, being in a room with Ariana Grande at an early age, and her saying the references of the people she kind of wanted to vibe and be like, and to see her even go into the studio with us, and see her bring that energy out through every song. I knew even before it happened, I used to tell people like, ‘Yo, this chick going to be huge!’ And people would be like, ‘Aw Nickelodeon, whatever.’ But to see people really show respect and bow down to what she has to offer. Same with Post Malone, like he’s a musician. It’s cool to see what he can do with the acoustic guitar. We would jam out because I play the guitar, but it was cool. I didn’t know if I was tripping or if it would work. But as you can see, it worked.”

So what’s next for you?
Well, I got this movie I’m working on soon, down in Texas. But, also tour— I can’t announce any dates yet because we’re solidifying those loose ends, but I finally get to say what’s up to my fans that have been following me for so many years. Meeting my core fan base is something I’m super excited about. But after that, honestly, I been working with some amazing producers. From Boi-1da to my boy Axel Foley, who produced a bunch of the Kendrick stuff. I been working with a bunch of my heroes lately. I’m excited for 2019. We have a lot of music.

Getting viewed as a peer and not a fan or anything like that from people you idolize has to be gratifying, right?
You know, for a long time I had to fight the weird stigma that comes with growing up on TV. Certain people don’t want to associate their brands with certain things, but it was really cool to see people show respect to the fact that I was able to win a Grammy at 21. Or get on platinum records and do my thing. Right now, I’m not really trying to impress my peers as much as I am unapologetically being myself musically. that’s what they’re responding to.

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Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Singles By Bomb Womxn Of 2019

Nothing hits like a rapper talking their sh*t, especially if she happens to be a womxn. There's a confidence that oozes out from the speakers and into the spirits of a listener open to that addictive feminine energy. This year, we got to see this in a big way thanks to the crossover success of a batch of very different womxn in rap. There's the hot girl also known as Megan Thee Stallion who balances her college courses while grabbing up Billboard chart-topping hits; new mama Cardi B proves you can really have it all and make history at the same time (a la her solo rap Grammy win) and Lizzo, who constantly pushes what it means to be a "rapper" with her style of vibrant pop music.

In 2018, VIBE presented a year-end list dedicated to albums by womxn and this year continues that tradition of spotlighting some of our favorite womxn– who happen to rap. The term "female rapper" has become sour by the minute, with many artists in the game refusing to pair their gender to an artform seemingly jumpstarted by a black womxn. “I don’t want to even be a female rapper,” CHIKA told Teen Vogue recently. “I’m a rapper. So for someone to have a qualifier like that and throw it out there so publicly — it feels really backhanded. I don’t like [it].” She isn't the only one. As hip-hop continues to dominate pop culture, the womxn in the genre are demanding respect for the craft. Here's a list comprised of some of our favorite songs that hit the charts or slipped under the radar.

Enjoy.

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Steve Morris @stevemorrism

Afrochella Sets Sight On Connecting The African Diaspora, One Festival At A Time

African music and culture are going global.

There’s a concerted effort to create and connect on the continent and to the continent. In Ghana and Nigeria specifically, a number of events, festivals, concerts, and activations have grown to prominence over the past five years, attracting newcomers and serving locals. This year, December will harvest a crop of opportunities for those abroad and at home to tap into the music, art, food, and fashion of the new-wave vanguard.

“Ghana remains home to the global African family,” Ghana Tourism Authority CEO Akwasi Agyemang said in an interview earlier this year. "We are positioning Ghana as a gateway to the West African market," Agyemang added. As African cultural productions popularize abroad, Accra and Lagos have become the go-to grounds for people of the diaspora to initiate immersion into experiencing Africa. 

The Ghana Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture have lined up a slate of activities in an effort to boost the country’s tourism industry. The government has taken initiative to further pushing for mobilization, galvanizing both descendants and diasporans to visit, invest, and live in the country.

Certain factors make Ghana appealing for visitors. Along with it being one of the more stable nations in West Africa, according to a 2011 Forbes report, Ghana was ranked the 11th -most friendly country in the world, ranked higher than any other African country. But as of last year, according to the World Atlas, Ghana didn’t rank amongst the top 10 African countries to visit for tourism in 2018. There is already a history of diasporans permanently relocating to Ghana. The government attempted to facilitate this process when it waived some visa requirements and passed amendments to a 2002 law that permits people of African origin to apply to stay indefinitely in Ghana. 

But this year has been a particularly important one for visitors. This December marks the ending commemoration of the Year of Return. Ghana 2019 is an initiative of the government formally launched by the President of the Republic of Ghana in September 2019 in Washington, D.C. as a program for Africans in the diaspora to unite with Africans on the continent. The mission transcends a marketing strategy. The year 2019 commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. The program serves to recognize the surging people and the following generations of achievements, sacrifices since then. 

The past year has seen a steady influx to West Africa. According to a report in Quartz Africa, Ghana’s tourism sector contributed 5.5 percent to GDP in 2018, ranking in fourth place after gold, cocoa, and oil in terms of foreign exchange generation for the country. And the government is hoping for more growth. Ghana is reportedly projected to rake in an annual $8.3 billion from the tourism sector by the year 2027 in tandem with an estimated 4.3 million international tourist arrivals.

But with the opportunities for connection and investment comes a slate of new concerns attached to old ones. Tourism, for example, can be lucrative for local business, but also can have a broader disruptive impact on the nation’s economy. Then, there are the issues that programmers face to bring locals and visitors the sought-after idealized experiences of Ghana— a taxing and a challenging feat to execute in an environment that’s still developing its infrastructure in multiple sectors. Along with improper documentation of visitors, the 15-year development plan put in place to help push the numbers, in ways, has not been implemented in full force.

But a rush to Ghana is still projected, and there’s a slew of events coinciding in the region at the same time this year aiming to accommodate this. One of the events slated for a return is Afrochella, the annual art, music, and food festival happening in Accra from December 20 to January 5. Separate from the official year of return events, each event also aims to fulfill a similar mission and market individual appeal amidst similar events. There’s AfroNation, the popular Europe music festival holding its first-ever edition on Ghana’s coastline at the same time as Afrochella, while Nativeland is planning a selection of panels and immersive activations with Melanin Unscripted focusing on music, art, and culture in Lagos right before it.

Afrochella was conceptualized by Abdul Karim Abdullah in 2015. Abdullah, along with co-founder Kenny Agyapong, and COO Edward Adjaye, launched the full-scope festival with the hopes of curating a connection to the continent this year, focused on increasing visibility to the rising talent on the continent. Their 2019 theme is “Diaspora Calling,” aiming to promote networking within the Ghanaian community and diaspora, ensure African youth value and celebrate their native cultures while connecting communities through education, fashion, art, music, and business in Africa. 

Community involvement representative Emmanual Ansa states they want the event to become “the impetus and mecca for the celebration of African music, culture, and art.” But amidst the many options on the ground this year to fulfill these missions, where does Afrochella stand, and how does it stand out?

VIBE sat down with the Afrochella co-founder Abdullah to talk about the structural challenges of executing this initiative while appeasing the demands of a growing consumer base, the cultural significance of the event, and envisioning Ghana as a premier frontier for a global black connection.

Can you talk about the origin of Afrochella? What inspired it?

I went to school in Ghana for about seven years, and then I came back to the US and I went to high school in the Bronx—  High School For Teaching And The Professions. I went to Syracuse University in 2006 and got my bachelor's in psychology and biology. And then I got my master's in 2016 at CUNY Hunter college in public health. I've been working in medical research for eight and a half years. But this has been a passion of mine that I've always done on the side, which is throwing African-inspired events.

That’s when my team came together. It started out with me wanting to do a festival here in New York called Native Tongue festival, and that was geared towards food. I just wanted to explain the culture and engage people within the diaspora. But then, on our yearly trip to Ghana, I found that we would gather and we would have a great time, but we couldn't really have that much of an effect once we left. I felt like we could have an effect; we could encourage more people to reach back home and do certain things by creating a space where we can engage each other. I thought there was so much talent coming in from all over the world that were from Ghanian descent or African descent and if we could create a place where we can galvanize all of that and the people that are doing amazing things within those industries, we would be able to create something pretty good. [In] 2017, we decided to do something like that.

How has it changed since 2017? Has it been easier to translate what you're trying to do in terms of this new interest in Africa — Ghana and Nigeria in particular? 

My team is battle-tested. We understand what we have to do in order to make the event successful. But, I wouldn't say it's been easier; each year presented different challenges for us. In year one, it was financial. Until this year, it was navigating bureaucracies. Last year, it was navigating governmental agencies. This year is navigating competition, navigating finding more funding.  One of the things that we noticed about events in Ghana specifically is that once it [nears] completion, people tend to not attend it anymore. What we want to make sure we do is every year we want to increase the amount of people that attend— and each year we have at least by 30 percent. Each year, we've been able to define our message more clearly. 

Talk a little bit about the government in Ghana. How has it been dealing with things on the bureaucracy level?

I would say our event is doing a big service to Ghana. Afrochella has definitely given people an opportunity to visit Ghana. The government should support us in a way that makes gaining access to certain government facilities easier. But that has not been the case. We've had to be very proactive about that with regards to certain policies that may exist that are not written on an online forum. Like in America, if I wanted to do a special event in the park, I'd be able to go to an online source. I'd be able to see all the things that need to do in order to get a specific permit for a specific venue. In Ghana, these things don't exist.

For instance, this year we received an email from some agency. Out of all of the years, we've never communicated with them and in the third year, they're reaching out to us about musician copyrights and, apparently, we have to pay a tax. Those are the kinds of things that we've faced. You can end up paying people that are not actually supposed to get paid. And there's no way of you knowing whether or not it exists or doesn't exist. 

Last year, we had a very weird incident four days before the festival. We were told by the Ministry of Aviation that our stadium is right by the takeoff of the planes leaving Accra. I would think that the venue that we're renting out for this festival would be able to let us know, “hey, you need to do this with the Ministry of Aviation,”— they did not. The day before Christmas, we got a notification that we have to change venues because they feel our lights will interfere with flights taking off. It's, of course, an accident. So, we reached out to the Ministry of Aviation, sat down with the director and devised a plan in order to allow our event to continue. Those are the kinds of things we faced as an event that we are still trying to navigate. Hopefully, as we grow, it will get easier.

Do you think it'll get easier when some type of infrastructure is built to help those types of events move more smoothly?

I think that Ghana is going to have to look itself in the mirror. We all don't know what to expect in December. Because there are a lot of people going to Ghana in December, the anticipation is very high. All the major hotels in Accra are sold out. How Accra responds to the influx of people I think should inform the government on how they should prepare for events and things like this for the future. I do hope that there is an effort created to streamline policies. 

I would like for the government to encourage events. I think events is one of the major drivers of tourism. And if they're paying attention, they will notice that a lot of people are coming to Accra for Afrochella and the events that exist during that last week of Christmas. The double mission is to take a deeper look at this creative industry and figure out a way to encourage that positively in a way that it affects both the people on the ground and the people within the diaspora. 

The government has not been welcoming this with open arms or does it not have any type of structured initiative to help this run smoothly?

I'm not saying that. I just feel like in general, we do not know what changes in infrastructure or policy being made to accommodate the amount of people that are coming in. For instance, with Afrochella we understand that because there's going to be so many people—there was an excessive amount of traffic coming into the stadium last year—that we need to figure out a way to get people to the festival in shuttles. If we can get people that are shuttles, then we could reduce the amount of cars. We reached out to the Ministry of Roads to help us so we can avoid traffic in front of the stadium and that we can make sure that there's a safe way for people to enter. This is some of the planning that we have done. Until now, I personally have not seen any information come out, access [to] policies that exist. 

One of the major complaints that people from the diaspora face when they go to Africa during Christmas time is we feel that we should be having the same sort of customer service that we enjoy abroad. With the influx of people, I think that it's going to get worse.

We just wanna make sure that infrastructure exists to make sure that people that are coming do not disrupt the way of life in Accra.

There are a lot of other events happening around the same time as Afrochella. What is the concerted effort to kind of stand out from the rest?

Our goal is to highlight the thriving millennial talent from within the continent. So we take pride in making sure that we're highlighting people within various industries of food, fashion, music. With our Afrochella Talk series, we’ve been able to highlight people that have been doing amazing things within the creative industry. In December, we'll be doing one on music. And this is an opportunity to be able to educate people on opportunities that may exist within their field or create a platform for people to be able to discuss questions they may have. 

We're also involved heavily in charity. Last year, we supported Water Aid to help provide clean water to families in need. The year before that, we gave out school supplies to kids within Madina Zongo. This year, we're doing charity twofold. We're rebuilding an orphanage school, in Jamestown, Accra and also providing them with school supplies. We call this initiative Afrochella Reads]. We’re also doing Afrochella Feeds on December 26th. 

Our goal when we bring people to Ghana is not just to come and turn up, not just to have a good time, but also to give them a feel of the vibration of the country, what the culture is.For us, it's a holistic approach.

What does the full festival entail?

The festival itself is art, music, food, fashion and all of that culminates in our eyes what culture is. We believe that each part of these is equally as important. Not one part is more important than the other and that we should celebrate them together. In addition to people getting to go to our festival, we also give them the opportunity to be able to engage with the country through our tours, through our charity. The tours and the charity that we do is to make people understand that yes, Africa is a good time— you can go to all the clubs— but we want to make sure you leave and provide an impact at the same time. 

Talk a little bit about the Audiomack rising star challenge and that effort to kind of curate the connection with music and culture.

With the rise of afropop music in America, I feel these artists deserve a chance. Right now, the popular, mainstream artists are the ones that are getting the looks they deserve. But I think that there are a lot of talents that exist from the continent that deserve to showcase their talent.

The other aspect of it is, I feel that people in the continent are using all of these apps and all of these different services and they hardly get to connect with representatives from those services. One of our goals is to make sure that we partner with these companies and give them the opportunity to invest in the talent directly. With Audiomack, we're doing exactly that in that we're giving seven individuals an opportunity to perform at Afrochella. And the one with the most streams, we’re giving them $1,000 towards their career and we’re giving them an opportunity to for a studio session at our partners BBnZ Live. This is one model of the type of partnerships we want to, we look to create with companies in the future. 

Why is this year in particular so important for the reconnection of the diaspora in the context of the 400-year anniversary?

A lot of the conversation between the diaspora and the people from the continent is what makes us different, why we don't get along. What we want to do as a festival is take that conversation and change it into what can we learn from each other and how can we help each other. I think that it's very important that as you see the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans and everyone reaching for Africa, that we engage the people in the diaspora to make them understand that there are opportunities that exist and there is amazing talent in Africa and they are interested in starting a business and you're interested in developing a space and you can engage with your counterparts on the continent and help build the continent yourself.

I think the more black people we get to invest in the continent, as a whole black will be helping each other. This year is absolutely important and I think that shoutout should go to Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana for declaring this year The Year of Return. Ghana is definitely a good site that people can visit, but we hope that as people enjoy themselves and have that experience that they use that as a platform to visit other African countries and see what opportunities are there for them to be able to leave a lasting impact on the continent.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Nick Rice

The 25 Best Latinx Albums Of 2019

As we inch closer to the end of another memorable chapter in music, the Spanish-language gap gets bigger by the day. To anyone who believed reggaeton's second coming or Latin trap was a trend were gravely mistaken as artists across the diaspora found success on the charts and in the streaming world. Artists like Bad Bunny, Rosalía and J Balvin continued to thrive off last year's releases while dropping memorable singles (and joint projects). Others like Sech broke the mold for the marriage of hip-hop and reggaeton with Panamanian pride. Legends like Mark Anthony and Ivy Queen reminded us of their magic while rising artists like Rico Nasty, DaniLeigh and Melii provided major star power and creative visuals for their tunes. Latinx music has continued to push boundaries and the same goes for our list.

Enjoy our ranking of the 25 best Latinx albums of 2019.

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