Green Book
Melissa Ramirez Ordonez (NBCUniversal)

Don Shirley And 'The Green Book' Are The Historical Anchors Of Mahershala Ali's New Segregation-Era Film

Green Book tells the story of Don Shirley, an African American pianist, traveling to the American South during segregation.

​​In theaters this week (Nov. 16), Green Book has already garnered critical acclaim and interest from the public by winning the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) beating the box office hit, A Star is Born. This film is the first drama for director Peter Farrelly, best known for his comedies Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary.

Green Book, a dramatic shift from Farrelly’s previous work, tells the story of Donald Walbridge Shirley, professionally known as Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist touring the American South with his Italian-American driver and bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). While the film is rife with comedic moments as they form an unlikely friendship, the underlying storyline is based on real-life experiences with segregation in the South during the ‘60s.

For many, though, this film serves as an introduction to not only what The Green Book was, but the real-life challenges faced by African Americans who relied on it as a guide when navigating their way through American interstates. For Shirley, this book played an integral role during his tour throughout the American South in 1962. To fill in some of the nuances of the story that may be missed in two hours and 10 minutes of screen time, it is important to understand the impact of both Don Shirley as a musician and the actual The Green Book before seeing the film.

The film begins with Don Shirley’s search for a driver and bouncer to accompany him on a tour. Shirley was a highly acclaimed pianist and composer who developed his own signature musical style that was a melange of classical, jazz and popular music. It was his musical prowess that brought him recognition from audiences filled with the social elite, celebrities and even presidents on occasion, who gathered to hear him play the classical arrangements in a not-so-classical way. He was known for adding his own flair to the music and was a true virtuoso in every sense of the word.

Throughout his career, Shirley composed three symphonies, two piano concertis, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and a number of other covers of popular classical music.

Born to Jamaican parents, Don Shirley was a musical prodigy first taught to play the piano at two and a half by his mother and began performing by the age of three. By 10, Shirley had mastered most of the standard concert repertoire studying under organist Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and made his debut at the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor at the age of 18.

Sometime in his 20s, Shirley was advised by impresario Sol Hurok that American audiences were not yet ready to see a “colored” pianist on the concert stage and that it was a better choice for him to pursue a career in popular music or jazz. Instead of letting this deter him, Shirley began playing in nightclubs and invented his own musical genre as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio (along with a bassist and a cellist), which played popular European and American music with a classical structure. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Shirley spoke about the evolution of his musical style over the years, stating that “The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do."

Shirley’s first original composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. He then began touring the world and was invited to play for the Haitian government at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince, with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, to name only a few. At this time, he is said to have averaged some 95 concerts a year while composing symphonies and pieces for the piano, quartets and piano concerts along the way. He held a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa) and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts, and was fluent in eight languages.

Shirley reached the peak of his popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, recording 16 albums including one on which “Water Boy,” his single with the Don Shirley Trio, reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He developed a friendship with fellow pianist Duke Ellington and was known for performing his music, on-stage alongside Ellington and in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in 1974. But it was his appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show that transformed him into a national sensation and sparked interest in touring all corners of the United States.

In 1962, he enlisted not only a driver but the use of The Negro Motorist Green Book to help navigate his way through an area of the country that still had segregation laws. Developed by a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book was first published in 1936 in Harlem as an aid to help his community navigate their way through New York. It was inspired by similar guides created in Jewish communities to distribute list establishments that were safe to visit. The guide was updated annually for 30 years and expanded to include information on all 50 states and eventually information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

By the mid-20th century, the car was synonymous with the joy of travel, as the great American road trip was on the rise. But for African-Americans living in the Jim Crow era, navigating the open road wasn’t without its roadblocks. Segregation was still legal in the South, which meant that most motels, restaurants, service stations and even public restrooms were not areas where all travelers could go. "Sundown towns" and “sundown laws” we’re also still quite common in the Caucasian municipalities in the South, where people of color were banned from a certain jurisdiction and had to leave by nightfall.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” —excerpt from forward in the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book

During these years, The Green Book became an indispensable resource for traveling African-Americans to share their knowledge and create safe driving routes in unfamiliar areas the United States. By the early 1940s, The Green Book included thousands of establishments—either black-owned or verified by other travelers to be non-discriminatory—from across the country.

In its prime, The Green Book sold upwards of 15,000 copies a year and through a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, The Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. Not only was The Green Book a resourceful guide for black travelers, but it also became a catalyst for black entrepreneurship promoting black-owned restaurants and motels and helped members of the community transcend socio-economic barriers into the middle class.

In preparing for the film, Mahershala Ali was surprised to realize that The Green Book was a positive thing for African-Americans. During the 1950s and ‘60s, a number of African-Americans migrated from the South to Chicago and California but often families would take road trips for weddings, funerals and family reunions.

​But the reality was that at this time, it didn’t matter if you were Duke Ellington, Don Shirley or the family down the road; the laws of segregation applied to all African-Americans.

During a Q&A session after its TIFF premiere (Sept. 11), Ali told an anecdote from the filming of Green Book. He met a man who recalled that the popular motel used in a scene was the very same establishment frequented by musical legends Little Richard, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Charles and more. The highly-recommended motel was just inches away from the freeway and nothing to note in today’s standard for travel. It was the only place African-Americans could stay.

​In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Shortly after, The Green Book ceased production and retired to a memory of this time often found tucked away in your grandparent’s attic or basement or at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which has digitized its collection.

Today, we still see contemporary African-American communities rallying together to share community resources. Travel Noire, an online resource for black travelers to share their stories and practical advice, is a modern iteration of the communal resource that was The Green Book.

“There are things that are unique to our experiences as black travelers, and those stories deserve to be told,” Travel Noire’s managing editor Nadia Harris says via email. “Not only does it provide a roadmap to travel success; this community lets you know that you're not the only person who experienced those long stares in China or that the overwhelming sense of love and pride you felt in Tanzania was indeed real. You are not alone. We've traveled to these same places and we've felt those same things.”

Whether we are in 1962 or 2018, finding a community to share their insights in exploring new places has always been (and will always be) what holds the black American community together through travel.

READ MORE: Mahershala Ali Officially Joins The Cast Of ‘True Detective’ Season 3

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Revisit D'Angelo’s April 2000 Cover Story: 'SOUL MAN'

After five long years, D'Angelo has blessed us with his otherwordly sophomore album, Voodoo. dream hampton talks to R&B's ruffneck Romeo about the inspiration behind his music: growing up in the church, the birth of his son, and channeling old souls.

"...tarry...until ye be endued with power from on high" —Luke 24:49

D’Angelo was raised Pentecostal. Speaking in tongues. The Holy Ghost coming down on the anointed. Shouting and tarrying. Sanctified. Pentecostalism is to Christianity what hip hop is to black music. It’s hardcore. Pentecostalists don’t call the way they worship by its ancient name. To call their religion ancestor worship would be blasphemous. By the time D’Angelo was a small boy, his grandparents had broken away from the other Pentecostalists in Virginia. In relatively rural Richmond, his grandfather forbade his family—on any level—with other dandified church members or Baptists. “They were strict,” D’Angelo says. But they wielded influence over the family because of their deep spirituality. They “had the power,” he says.

All his life, D’Angelo has watched the faithful become occupied by spirits—what in Haitian voodoo ceremonies is called “being mounted.” For in a sanctified church—where women aren’t allowed to wear pants or makeup, male leaders are titled elders, church mothers stand alert in white nurse’s uniforms prepared to revive anyone overcome with Spirit, and service is several days a week and many hours long—if there is no mounting, there is no true salvation. When D’Angelo’s older brother Rodney was 9, he caught the Holy Ghost. Began speaking in ancient tongues, “I was scared,” D’Angelo admits now, “because I could see how real it was. He was taken over. Completely.” Possessed.

“I saw this one lady, she used to catch demons,” he continues. “She used to always catch’ em. And one night at this revival in the mountains, she caught a demon. She was going out of her way to disrupt. She ripped the Bible apart. She was being sexual. Stripping. Foaming at the mouth. She was speaking an evil tongue. I had never heard before, but I knew it was evil. And this brother from the choir, he and the evangelist tried to get it out of her—to exorcise her. And she was screaming, ‘No! No!’ She crawled out of there on all fours. There was a graveyard out back, and she was jumping on the hoods of the cars. And the whole church went out and made a circle around her and started praying and singing. Then my grandfather laid hands on her. And it was over.” At the time, Michael D’Angelo Archer, the youngest of three sons of a sanctified preacher (himself the son of a preacher) and a “powerful” mother, was 12.

D’Angelo recorded his long-awaited new album, Voodoo (Virgin), at Electric Lady Studios, which Jimi Hendrix built on Eighth Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The studio pet, a white cat named Jimi, would follow D’Angelo around and curl up in his lap while D worked out some lyric or chord. And of course, he has nightmares about conjuring Marvin Gaye. Yes, he knows that on “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the single from Voodoo, he sounds like Prince; it’s an homage. He was challenging the dirty mind The Artist abandoned for Jehovah. But Voodoo isn’t about them. It’s about his grandmother and grandfather. And tambourines. And the tarrying that still goes on till four in the mourning. Because sometimes it’s the slow-coming, baring one’s soul. Becoming naked to God, vulnerable to the ancestors. And their ancient tongues. Sometimes it takes three whole years of tarrying to call Spirit down.

"WHEN YOU WITNESS A BIRTH, THAT'S DEFINITELY A TRUE WORK OF GOD," SAYS D'ANGELO. "I JUST FELL ON MY KNEES AND CRIED."

When, “Brown Sugar,” D’Angelo’s first single (from the album of the same name), dropped in the spring of ’95, Raekwon ruled the streets, Biggie ran the radio, and Tupac was recovering from gunshot wounds in a prison cell. Twenty-one-year-old D’Angelo and his sticky ode to cannabis seemed to come out of nowhere; he simply could not have been anticipated. Black radio gave the single a cautious embrace then caught up as momentum for the record soared. (I distinctively remember my stripper girlfriends from Detroit going on and on about this song that was making them rich weeks before radio broke it.) With an 8-track sensibility, keys that recalled choir organs, and D’Angelo’s often incomprehensible but guided falsetto, Brown Sugar the album (EMI) was the early tremor of what lovers of soul hoped would be a seismic shift, a repatriation, if you will, to real music. There were a couple of funky bands (whose members played instruments) that managed to break through back then; actually there were exactly two: Tony Toni Toné, who were headed for a breakup, and Mint Condition, who seemed locked in some powerful curse that kept them from the success and recognition they deserved. Mostly what was passing for R&B were Jodeci knockoffs. Actual soul music—music where notes sounded wet like teardrops, music delivered to our parents by Minnie Riperton, Al Green, and the Isley Brothers—was like a distant memory. Brown Sugar was the elixir no one knew to want. Like a promise made in silence, fulfilled. Then we began to learn who D’Angelo was; scouring his CD cover for the standard Babyface or Teddy Riley production credit, we were alarmed to learn that he’d written, produced, arranged, and performed the album himself—as a teenager, in his bedroom in Richmond. This kind of self-containment, delivered from the edge of nowhere hadn’t been witnessed since…well, since Prince.

D’Angelo became a major story. R. Kelly would earn and keep the crown of R&B king, but D’Angelo was something deeper. He became a symbol for integrity and musicianship and artistry. An ambassador for something so old it was new. As other soulful artists, like Erykah Badu and Rahsaan Patterson, followed him, journalists scrambled for a name for this “new” category of music. Neo-soul, retro-roots—but none of them truly stuck. When other singers, like Chico DeBarge and Maxwell, submitted their efforts, they, too, were lumped into this category. With Voodoo, a brave deconstruction of his sound, D’Angelo has pushed the game even further than he had before. As prodigious jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who plays on Voodoo, puts it, “D’Angelo has set the standard for other artists.” Even other renowned musicians recognize—D’Angelo is virtually peerless.

That there was a five-year gap between Brown Sugar and Voodoo is something of a story in itself. Of the half-dozen cover stories and feature articles you’ll read on D’Angelo, most will begin with the fact that his sophomore album took so long to be completed. In the record industry, he’s accused of being indulged beyond reason, in a marketing sense. His cover of “She’s Always in My Hair” from the Scream 2 soundtrack (Capitol, 1977) was like a hand-written to Prince, but it never received a promotional push and remained a kind of secret between them. The one original song that dropped between the first and second albums, the brilliant “Devil’s Pie" from the Belly soundtrack (Def Jam, 1988), signaled the funkier, more experimental direction D’Angelo was headed in but was perhaps too self-indulgent for fans hoping for another melodious standard like “Lady.” Raphael Saadiq, who cocreated “Untitled,” says D’Angelo is hyperaware of pushing the limits of his sound. “We always say, ‘Do you want to go there with the music?’ because we have to fight all the things that are out now.” So D’s short answer to this most frequently asked question, Why so long?, is “I had to get it right; I just wanted it to be right.”

The long answer is slightly more involved. In the beginning, he suffered from severe writer’s block. Then he witnessed the birth of his son, Michael D’Angelo Archer II, with his ex-girlfriend, singer Angie Stone. “When you witness a birth, that’s definitely a true work of God….I mean, it’s a part of you,” says D’Angelo. “I just fell on my knees and I cried. I was so humbled I couldn’t get it together. The nurses were like, ‘All right, get up!’” And he did. The floodgates opened. He and Stone took their newborn son home and wrote “Send It On,” a love letter to their child about heritage and flow and spirit and love. “Voodoo started the day we were with our son,” says Stone, who cowrote four tracks on the album with D’Angelo. “I felt like he approached the album as if it were a celebration. ‘Send it On’ jump-started the project, and I credit our son for that. The song had a spiritual overtone that came with revelation and faith and ‘Thank you, God, for such a beautiful gift.’” In the end, the album’s beleaguered release date came down to just that—releasing Voodoo. The record had become, during the three years he recorded it, very much like another child—a baby to him and the people who helped create it. After thousands of hours of experimenting and free flowing, Roots drummer and D’Angelo’s “copilot” on the album, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Russell “The Dragon” Elevado, D’s indefatigable and loyal engineer, had a hard time letting go of the experience of making Voodoo. “I didn’t want it to end,” D’Angelo told Ahmir on the Tuesday in January that the album hit record stores. “Me either, man,” replied Ahmir, “me either.”

D’Angelo insists that the length of time it took to deliver Voodoo wasn’t about some slack worth ethic or all-consuming herb habit. It wasn’t about his tender age (26) or an exceedingly ambitious vision of what his sophomore album should be. It definitely wasn’t about challenging pop music’s mandate that an artist cough up a 74-minute disc every two years (D’s too busy being an artist to raise some radical protest like that). Nor was it about a crippling fear. “I wasn’t really thinking about the sophomore-jinx thing,” he says. “I was really thinking about the whole picture—not just the second album, but all the albums that come after that. It had to be evolutionary, and whatever it took to get that…”

"I WASN'T THINKING ABOUT THE SOPHOMORE-JINX THING," SAYS D. "I WAS THINKING ABOUT THE WHOLE PICTURE."

D’Angelo is what vanguard jazz musician Charlie Hunter (who plays guitar on Voodoo) calls “the perfect blend of the intellectual and the visceral,” someone whose ability to make music is matched by his knowledge of music history. He is perfectly willing to contextualize his own evolution. “I realized that everything that exists, all music, comes from Africa,” D’Angelo explains. “I started to see all the connections of music pointing back to Africa, and I wanted to express all those genres. Like what Sly [Stone] was trying to do, like what Prince was trying to do, and Jimi too.” To shed light on his own falsetto and his willingness to marry major and minor chords, D will reference Same Cooke—“the way he would do his vocals, with his musicians all playing major chords”—then he’ll grab his guitar and demonstrate an example into the phone receiver. “And he [Cooke] would just come out of nowhere in this minor key—it’s hard to put in words the effect that has on you—the chills. It’s just evolutionary….I want to be free like that.”

D’Angelo can go on and on about music. But his confidant and “Soulaquarian” brother Questlove believes that in the beginning he suffered from writer’s block for the same reason most of us do—because of the same reason most of us do—because of the demise of his love relationship. “My theory on D’s writer’s block,” Ahmir says, “was about something Angie said to him once, kind of saying he wanted to turn what was tumultuous about their relationship into songs.” Voodoo is reserved in that way, like a slow striptease, not quite the naked autobiography we’re sure to witness on his future recordings, God willing. I ask him about his relatively conservative approach to writing. Conservative, compared to the freedom he expresses as a vocalist and to a greater extent as a producer and thinking musician. I accuse him of being private, of protecting the people in his life, of keeping secrets. “That’s exactly what I do,” he admits. “I’m just so…so private, like you said. It’s hard,” he stutters. “Writing is a place I want to be completely open; it’ll happen.” Not that D’Angelo isn’t achingly intimate. We haven’t heard ecstasy-inducing lines like, “…I’d love to make you wet / In between your thighs ‘cause / I love it when it comes inside you," since Marvin Gaye told his second wife, “I want to give you some head.”

When it came time to physically reveal himself for this project, D’Angelo went all the way. The video for “Untitled,” a nearly uninterrupted shot of D’s naked torso, is two seconds short of pure exhibitionism, but it comes off because, well, he seems to be getting off. Where D seemed trapped behind his keyboard for the whole of Brown Sugar, hiding a chubbier physique with peacoats and leather jackets, he’s stripped down now. And the “Untitled” clip gives the impression that an incredibly skilled friend of his is doing some work of her own just below the camera’s frame. “Me and Dom [his manager, Dominique Trenier] talked about the concept for the video for a half hour. Then we didn’t talk about it again. I just showed up. And it was really about concentrating on my performance. I had to sing the song 17 times.”

D’Angelo is really shy. He listens more than he talks, especially when he first meets you. He doesn’t frequent New York City’s hot nightclubs on a regular basis or hobnob with other celebrities. He keeps a close-knit circle of like-minded artists around him and drives his Range Rover home to Richmond whenever he needs a break from Manhattan—which is monthly. Yet he can be overwhelmingly familiar. I once had a two-hour conversation with him, for an interlude on Voodoo (I’m the chick laughing right after “Feel Like Makin’ Love"), and he held my hand the entire time. When I said something that delighted him, like, “I told my mother I’d slit my wrists if she didn’t get me tickets to the Jacksons’ Victory tour,” he’d kiss me on the cheek. Even with other men he’s constantly touching. He hears what you’re saying, but what he really wants to do is feel you. Or as DJ Premier, who coproduced “Devil’s Pie,” puts it, “When you converse with him, he gives you a pound, every 20, 30 seconds; he just keeps shaking your hand, that’s his thing.

Still, you know he could just easily throw you up against a wall, like you’re being arrested, and keep you there till the sun comes up. Or fight a nigga. He can do that too, all that. He is stormy and light, and cerebral and earthy. He truly is, save his issue with revelatory writing, his music. "I’ve never come across a spirit like that,” says Chicago rapper Common, who was recording his album upstairs at Electric Lady while D’Angelo worked in the basement. “His spirit is too strong… It comes from another dimension.”

"MY THEORY," SAYS QUESTLOVE, "IS THAT HE WANTED TO TURN WHAT WAS TUMULTUOUS ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP INTO SONGS."

“I’ve been reading this book about angels,” D’Angelo tells me over the phone from his hotel room in Atlanta, where he’s donating the first check to the Curtis Mayfield Scholarship Foundation, which he helped establish. “And it was saying that every angel controlled an element and that it controlled the exact opposite elements too. Like fire and water.” Yes, I tell him, I haven’t read the same book but I’ve seen those yin-yang principles constructed in other places: in the Yoruba myth of Ogun; the Biblical myth of Lucifer; and in the autobiographical myth of Marvin. The hero-warrior who, in a rage, murders his entire family; the most glorious and revered angel in Heaven banished to be forever loathed and feared; the lonely son who’s as afraid of his sexuality as he is of his father’s God. We speak incoherently of being too vulnerable, opening oneself up to spirits that are destructive or, worse, suicidal. I ask him about channeling, about inviting musical forefathers in. Asking for the bright parts of what these immortals once were. Dancing around their cavernous shadows. “Like not letting Jimi have you entirely, just be with you for a few chords or something.” I suggest. He laughs. “It’s too real for me. That’s why I don’t even want to talk about Marvin or all that stuff,” D says. “On one hand it’s arrogant, on the other hand it’s like… playing with something dangerous. It’s too real.”

As with a lot of gifted artists, one of D’Angelo’s greatest challenges will be to break out of the music history that precedes him. The very history with which he is obsessed. It’s a challenge that must be met because there will never be another Marvin. Prince is still alive as The Artist and still making important music. We don’t need another one. Those who criticize D’Angelo, who say, for instance, that “Untitled” is too direct an allusion to Prince, have no idea that it’s Prince who rings D’Angelo up. Eric Clapton, who performed with D at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’s banquet last March, is equally wowed; he dropped by Electric Lady to see what the wunderkind was up to. When B.B. King first met D’Angelo three years ago, he pulled D’s manager Trenier aside and told him, “That boy’s not 22 years old. I’m telling you, he’s not.” But he was.

Since then, D has read Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye and the latest biography on Muhammad Ali. He and Questlove have screened endless hours of performance footage featuring James Brown, Parliament, and Sly & the Family Stone. He studies black genius, black male iconography. Still, he’s got to live it. He’s got to have his love affairs, his failed attempts at perfection, his battles with the music industry. Last September, when D’Angelo performed “Chicken Grease” on The Chris Rock Show the night after The Artist previewed some of his songs from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Artista, 1999) at a media listening party, a wide-eyed D’Angelo wants to know how The Artist was, whether the material was banging. Questlove, forever generous, gives a glowing review. But I can only look D’Angelo dead in the eye and beg of him, “Man, even if you get saved and turn 40 and everything, can you just try to stay, I dunno, nasty?” Everyone in the dressing room thinks this is a fine joke, but I’m not laughing, and D stares back at me and swears he hears me. “I feel you,” is what he says. “I’ma stay nasty.”

On the phone in that hotel room in Atlanta, after talk of demons and speaking in tongues, tragic soul singers and their major and minor chords, I remind D’Angelo of that promise he made a few months earlier. There are rumors that he will abandon the instrument from which he commands his sexiest sounds: the keyboard. I’ve heard his next album will be an attempt at the kind of raw, guitar-driven funk-rock Sly Stone had summoned from above. D’Angelo offers no confirmation, only the confidence enjoyed by the chosen: “I got a bullet in the chamber.”

Additional reporting by Abby Addis and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.

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This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by dreamhampton | Cover photography by Dah Len.

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Adrien Broner attends The Big Game Weekend at The Dome Miami on February 1, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
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Adrien Broner On His Boxing Return: "I'm Here To Take Over..." But Can He? Redemption Awaits In A Win

In 2021, many boxing fans and commentators have highlighted the breadth of talent currently bringing the sweet science back to prominence, with names like Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia, Teofimo Lopez, Devin Haney, Errol Spence Jr., and Terence Crawford all of which have become household names. One fighter, however, that yields as much (if not more), fanfare and intrigue is Cincinnati, Ohio native Adrien Broner.

 

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As former four-division world champion (super featherweight, lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight), AB was once believed by many to be the future face of the sport. Broner (who boasts a record of 33-4-1 with 24 wins via KO), has been commended for his preternatural skills between the ropes but maligned for his perceived lack of focus and immaturity. According to his detractors, those negative traits were contributing factors that led to a precipitous downfall from champion and showman to a misguided sideshow. That latter tag is something he attempts to debunk with his highly-anticipated return to the ring this Saturday (Feb. 20th) at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where he will face undefeated Puerto Rican super lightweight, Jovanie Santiago (14-0-1, 10 KOs) in a 12-round bout.

 

 

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Airing live on SHOWTIME at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, the fight will be Broner's first time stepping back in the ring in over two years, when he suffered defeat at the hands of boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao. Yet according to AB, he's fully prepared for the moment and anxious to lace up the gloves. "I feel good, man," Broner tells VIBE, via phone. "I just can't wait until the bell rings and to let my hands go."

Broner's confidence in his abilities is familiar on face value but comes at a time when there's as much doubt surrounding his standing and future in boxing as there has ever been. In addition to his current three-fight losing streak (with his last victory coming via a split decision welterweight match over Adrian Granados exactly four years ago this month), Broner's life outside of the ring has been marred by controversy and legal battles. In 2019, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and unlawful restraint after forcibly kissing a woman at an Ohio nightclub in 2018. The scene resulted in a lawsuit being filed against him by the victim, who was ultimately awarded an $855,682.03 judgment in her favor. However, Broner — who also picked up a DUI charge, violating his probation this past year — allegedly has no funds available to settle the lawsuit according to court documents submitted by Wells Fargo, causing detractors to peg his return to boxing as nothing more than a money grab. This is an accusation Broner swiftly denies, pointing towards Saturday night as the moment those theories will be debunked, "man, once they see me Saturday night, everything gon' change."

Change has been a constant in Broner's life as he attempts to pick up the pieces of his once-promising career, which garnered him early comparisons to a young Floyd Mayweather Jr. While Broner's appetite for the spotlight and his abrasive, cocksure soundbites are reminiscent of Mayweather, his diet and training regimen have paled in contrast to Floyd's, who is renowned for his undying work ethic and relentless drive to be the best. This time, in preparation for his comeback, Broner insists he's learned from the errors of his past ways, cutting down on his consumption of alcohol and women, as well as refining his diet for maximum results. "You know, I made a lot of adjustments," he reveals with a steady tone. "And I stopped eating a lot of crazy foods and everything's gonna show on Saturday night."

 

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One indicator of the validity of Broner's words was his ability to make the 147lb weight limit for his upcoming bout, a challenge he's struggled with in the past, having last made that weight in 2015. Another sign of Broner's renewed hunger and discipline is the various clips posted on social media of him training intensely, a process which saw him shed more than thirty-five pounds within months. Gervonta Davis, a four-time boxing world champion in two weight classes, was often seen training in close proximity to Broner and has inherited the Mayweather comparisons that once cloaked Broner himself. When asked of his relationship with the rising talent, Broner refers to Davis as family, voicing his desire to help the young champ avoid the same pitfalls that once caused him to stumble."You know, that's my baby brother," he says of the Baltimore bred knockout artist. "Always. Since the first day I seen him, I told him he was special and I always just try to help him. If he asks me something, I tell him the best thing to do. Before he can get in a situation, I tell him, 'We're gonna do something else.’ I just want the best for him."

 

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The potential star power that awaits Davis in the future could be blinding for many, but as for Broner, he's fully immersed in the present and is fixated on Jovanie Santiago, the next opponent in front of him and one he vows not to take lightly. "Well, in boxing, you can't overlook anything," when asked of any future endeavors or fights he has in mind. "So what's next for me is Saturday night." Broner may be focused on getting his victory, yet, if he does, it will be under different circumstances than he's used to, as the Santiago bout will be his first fight since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This means it will be his first time fighting without a crowd to cheer — or boo — him in his professional career.

This also diminishes the opportunity for the grand spectacle that is an Adrien Broner ring walk, which usually includes a rap star performing one of his favorite songs as he approaches his opponent for battle. "With this COVID, the way it's all set up, they ain't really letting us do much," he says when asked of any potential fireworks or highlights viewers can look forward to prior to the fight. "So I ain't worried about no ring walk. I'm worried about getting a victory." That said, Broner does offer insight into what he's been listening to for inspiration while training, listing a few familiar names of artists he's struck relationships with over the years. "Music is everywhere right now, honestly," he says of the current landscape of hip-hop and who he's checking for. "Every day you look up, it's a new guy with a new song, so I just love good music. But Lil Uzi is definitely always in my ear, Meek Mill is always in my ear and Rick Ross, for sure. And, of course, [Lil] Durk."

Days away from writing the first chapter in what has the makings of a redemption story for the ages, Broner is ready to face the music, sans a live performer or not. He appears as motivated as he's been in years. Watching the pre-fight press conference, remnants of the Adrien Broner we've come to love — or hate — clearly remains. The boasts, verbal jabs, and smugness are belied by experience and perspective, both of which he's added to his arsenal and hopes to reap the benefits come this weekend. "I just want everybody to watch Saturday night and I'll be victorious," he declares. "After this performance, I think the world is gonna know that Adrien Broner is back and I'm here to take over the sport."

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Rest In Peace Daddy U-Roy, The Original Dancehall Teacher

The race is not for the swift, but who can endure it. And Jamaica’s foundation deejay Daddy U-Roy is still setting the pace. Ewart Beckford, O.D., known to lovers of Jamaican music as U-Roy aka Daddy U-Roy the Teacher, passed away on Wednesday night (Feb. 17) at the age of 78. As a pioneer of Jamaican deejay music, aka toasting, aka the birth of dancehall, U-Roy's impact on popular music worldwide cannot be overstated. Upon the news of his passing, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson paid tribute to U-Roy as "The god of toasting," adding that "w/o him we wouldn't have the concept of hip-hop."

In the video for Rah Digga’s “Imperial,” Busta Rhymes shakes his locks into the camera and proclaims that “This station rules the nation with version.” Ardent students of reggae roots will recognize the line as a direct lift from “Rule the Nation,” a musical blast from 1970 that forever changed the soundscape of Jamaica, sending tsunami-sized ripples out from the little island that rocked the world. Never before had an instrumental “version” of a popular song been combined with straight-from-the-dancehall microphone toasting to create a hit single. Working with legendary rock-steady producer Duke Reid, a smooth-talking called U-Roy scored not one but three big tunes. “Wake The Town” and “Wear You to the Ball” completed U-Roy’s six-week lock on the top three positions in the Jamaican charts, and proved that deejaying (or, as Yankees would rename it, rapping) was here to stay.

U-Roy’s phenomenal debut came a full decade before MCs from the Bronx started complaining that the Sugar Hill Gang had bitten their style. So if you’re looking for the forefather of all rap stars, look no further. Though he is quick to credit Jamaican pioneers like Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Lord Comic, Daddy Roy is the one whose cool jive slang and hit records busted the dancehall style wide open, paving the way for untold generations of microphone chanters at home and abroad.

It's been more than 50 years since this Rastafarian welder from the Kingston ghetto took up the microphone to nice up the dance for Doctor Dickies’ Sound—later progressing to Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat and King Tubby’s Home Town Hi-Fi—U-Roy is regarded as a living legend anywhere dubplates rotate. Now in his late 50s, he continues to tour and record when he’s not operating his own sound system, the mighty Stur-Gav Hi-Fi, rolling with an awesome crew of lyrical masters that includes Brigadier Jerry, Josey Wales, and Charlie Chaplin. U-Roy’s latest CD, Serious Matter, released by the French label Tabou, features duets with a who’s-who of classical reggae vocalists, from the late Dennis Brown to Gregory Isaacs, Beres Hammond, Israel Vibration, and Third World.

How can one man be worthy to spar with such a powerful range of talent? As Shabba Ranks put it in his song “Respect”—“Just cool, cool. U-Roy done rule. U-Roy a godfather of the deejay school.” Or in the words of another foundation deejay, Tappa Zukie: “U-Roy is like a battery to me. Whenever I see U-Roy is like I charge up. Y’unnerstan? Him just give me the vibes to work. He’s like showing me back the real style. Working with U-Roy is like back in school. He is still the teacher.” If the latest graduating class of MCs and deejays should choose to listen, the Teacher has some valuable lessons to share. But as the old Jamaican saying goes, who can’t hear must feel.

 

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Teacher, what do you think of the state of dancehall reggae right now?

Hey—there’s a lot of changes in the dancehall ting right now. The music change a little bit an tings. The singers and deejays is like playin’ some different ting, so it’s different from when we started. There’s more slackness now an stuff like that—X-rated stuff.

But this dancehall ting been going on for years. Some people make it look like it’s just since Shabba Ranks and some other youth come that this dancehall ting come around. This ting’s been going on for years. The dancehall type of music was some music weh it’s like you’re too hardcore for the radio play. So a lot of songs, when the radio station hear them, they already been a hit. Because the sound system dance make them be a hit before they even get release. Caw we used to have things like music on dub plate, this is what you would call exclusive pre-release, yunno? Most sound been playing dubplate at dance for years. The radio station can’t afford to play those type of music, because—according to them—it’s not up to their standard. So nowadays these people make it look like “Hey dancehall business just come around yesterday.” Them just acknowledge it now.

You yourself have been making music since when, the 1960s?

From that time up to this, me play sound system. I wan’ tell you me a play sound system from like from ’65. But ’69 was the time when I kinda get more popular to all the Jamaican public.

When you were coming into your own, who were the deejays you looked up to?

There was Count Machuki, Lord Comic, people like that, King Stitt, yunno? Count Machuki used to be my favorite deejay. I think that is one of the most… educated deejays that one can ever listen to. He don’t crowd his music. Whenever he talking on sound system he don’t crowd the singer or nothing. He just space his words, yunno, and he don’t have a whole lot to say so that he crowd tings up. This was one man that really surprise me how he never do a lot of recording. He start recording long after I start record. And I surprise how this man really have no hits—I don’t know why.

Even a Deejay name King Sporty. He used to play for Duke Reid too. Dem time, I was deejay too, but I wasn’t inna dem class. They was ahead of me inna the sound system business. I was just like a likkle schoolkid, goin’ to school and still ask my grandmother to go out on the weekends. Long before I start holding the mike and stuff like that.

But their style was kinda different from mine because I kinda have this style that I… add things onto things. Like for instance, I used to have my style say “WOW!” Yunno? Style like that. In my talking I’d say “Love in the ghetto baby WOW! you got it” These deejays, they never have that style. (Laughs)

How did your recording career start?

Well, me used to have a biiig crowd that follow me from any part of Jamaica I play. It’s from deh so the people dem really like me. But I never even believe that things woulda go the way that they go for me. At that time deejay business was no business that people really have as anything big. Caw hey—I do a song with Peter Tosh name “Earth Rightful Ruler” yunno and it never got much play. Then I did another one name “Dynamic Fashion Way” with Ken Boothe and Keith Hudson and it never still go too far.

Then about a year after that I did “Wake the Town and Tell the People” and “Wear You to the Ball” and “This Station Rule the Nation” for Duke Reid and it just took off. Believe me, I hear these three tune been played on the radio and it even surprise me. I say “Cho!—these tunes get me really known to the people.“ I had one two and three for like six weeks and number one tune for 12 weeks..

Wasn’t that a revolutionary thing for a deejay to voice a record?

[Laughing] Me tell you—it’s really revolutionary thing, beca’ it never happen before. So my style I think is a blessing. I can only say that. I can’t put it no other way, cause believe me: a deejay have 1,2,3 on the chart? On the top 10? Hey—this used to be mostly foreign music and tings like that weh take up the chart. But they go to different record stores and take up a survey of which is the fastest-selling song for this week. Is just reality, the fastest-selling song, man.

Whose idea was it to make those records?

It was Duke Reid’s idea. He was the producer. You see, we used to play Tubby’s sound system. And Tubby’s used to play a lot of Duke Reid and Coxsone music, okay? So somebody from Duke Reid studio come to a dance one night where I was playing and he heard me talking on one of these riddims. And he go back to Duke Reid and tell Duke Reid hey Tubby have a deejay is the wickedest deejay you could ever hear. Right after that Duke Reid siddown and call me. And when I go down a studio he say, Look, I want you voice even one riddim for me. So we talk about likkle money ting, because at the time is like—hey—nothing big never a gwan. Even comparing to what them youth have been pickin’ up now, is like just cheese money. But at the time still, ya happy.

 

When the song hit number one did you get a little more cheese?

Oh yes [laughing] oh yes oh yes oh yes oh yes, yunno. When the song start pickin’ up, I start pickin’ up same way an’ gettin’ some money from him, money that keep me comfortable around my house for the week. When things start getting good, now, I said to him, Hey my royalties I gwine need to have a little house. And so yunno I buy a little house out of my money because I used to really scared of paying rent and them stuff. One time he offer me a car and I say, Hey—I have a bed and I have a stove, and I have my pot and things like this and I don’t see no car that can hold all these things. Yunno? So I get my house and I comfortable, yeah.



Deejay business was the beginning of rap music, right?

True true.

Do you think people really know and respect that side of the reggae?

I don’t think so. A lot of people do, a lot of people. But a lot still don’t. I just think that the time gone come when people gonna respect that.

What do you think about the rap mixing with the reggae?

One ting with me, I just like the more cultural side of hip hop. Something that send a message. I don’t like some of these hip hop weh talking bout bitch and mothaf**ker and stuff like that. We don’t need to sell these things to kids. Cause young kids is one of the biggest supporter in music, trust me. And if they hear you say something, is like hey—they gonna do exactly that.

As the teacher, what advice would you give to the younger artists of today?

Well… all I can tell them is hey, just be constructive, man. Yeh, just be more straight to the people. Come offa this gun talk an—yunno. We don’t want to hear about your gun and you have your gun pon you and dem stuff deh. Keep that! We don’t want no violence amongst the society. We want some peace and love, no matter what color you are, whether you white, pink, blue—just love. Ease off this war. War don’t make no sense. I don’t see no progress in war. Yeah. Something like that I woulda like tell them.

But I really like rap, becaw look, it keep the deejay business going. It’s the same form of deejay. It’s still deejay, but you call it rap. Singers come in and sing, rapper come in and say something—yunno I mean? It’s the same thing; it no different. Hey, for me, I really love it becaw it make it look like what I was doin’ wasn’t something stupid at all.

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