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George Marshall, American University

Marvel Comics Is Calling Black Minds To Breathe New Life Into Its Heroes

Black scholars and intellectuals are being hired to write for heroes like Black Panther, Captain America, Ironheart and more.

There’s a shift happening in the Marvel Universe. Last month (Nov. 28), Marvel released issue No. 1 of a new run of Ironheart, a comic about a teenage black girl named Riri Williams who uses her engineering genius to create a suit modeled after the Iron Man body armor and gets the endorsement from Tony Stark himself. But this new series isn’t written by a known comic book author; it’s penned by Eve Ewing (photographed above, left), a sociologist at University of Chicago and an Afrofuturist poet, essayist and visual artist. But just months earlier, instead of fictional superheroes, Ewing released a book that's as real as it gets—Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side.

The hire continues Marvel’s recent focus on its minority heroes, and the creative teams behind their stories. In an increase to have more talent that fits the characters they want to explore, Marvel Comics has added writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (photographed above, right), Roxane Gay, Geoffrey Thorne, Evan Narcisse, Bryan Hill, Nnedi Okorafor, David Walker and Ewing to pen the adventures of various comic characters all over the Marvel Comics landscape. The recent influx of black writers is helping turn the tide from white writers always handling the stories of black heroes, and combating what has been a lack of color in the pool of mainstream comics.

The demand gradually grew for characters and creators of color to be featured more prominently than was previously allowed. An increased focus on a wider array of characters and creators with diverse voices were needed to give a better picture to Marvel's motto, “The world outside your window.” Throughout the years, Marvel has had projects aimed at primarily black fan bases that have been met with both praise and criticism. In 2015 during the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” publishing initiative, former Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso announced that they would release “hip-hop themed” covers for their new wave of No. 1’s. “This variant program is an opportunity to show not only my love for hip-hop culture, but also the love of so many in Marvel’s freelance community,” Alonso said at the time in a statement. “Hip-hop inspires a lot of us. It is the musical score for a lot of our lives. This comes from a place of love.” The statement sounded great, but it came across as hollow since Marvel wasn’t enlisting black talent aside from those covers at the time.

“I didn’t consider it as much a nod to black fans since rap albums are as popular and mainstream as it gets. It does seem like an acknowledgment of hip-hop fans’ well-cataloged historical love of comic books on the surface, but it made sense from a business standpoint to potentially sell more units,” said comic expert Dart Adams. Still, Adams isn’t impressed by the new run of people of color. “Nothing makes up for Marvel not seeking out or turning over the reins over to black/Latino/Asian creators and women over the years or being late to do it now.”

Former comic blogger David Brothers spoke at length about the Marvel hip-hop covers in a 2015 post on his blog. “Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could,” Brothers wrote. “Storm is the highest profile black character in comics. But she’s mostly been written by white men, and a very small fraternity of black men, throughout the decades. … Shouldn’t a black lady get a chance at bat?”

David Walker, a past Marvel writer, spoke to VIBE via email about the specific conundrum facing black characters and the audience. “The reality is that people of color and women make up an incredible percentage of the people who are fans of comics and the ancillary markets fed by comics. We're talking more than half of the audience is women and people of color. And yet those numbers are not reflected in the talent creating the content, or the content itself. Publishers are trying to tap into black talent because it has proven in other media that it can make money.”

Since then, Marvel has recognized some of its faults and aimed to correct them. Not only have characters like Black Panther and Luke Cage become more prominent in the public eye, but other figures like The Falcon, Nighthawk, Ironheart, Patriot (Rayshaun Lucas), Moon Girl, Miles Morales, Shuri and the Dora Milaje in the comics have had small rebirths and continuations of their own with multiple titles and creators of color expanding on their stories. Comics are a medium that allows for the realism and fantastical to intersect and to be explored. Nighthawk, written by David Walker, drawn by Ramon Villalobos and colored by Tamara Bonvillain, starred the pair of Raymond and Tilda as the lethal protectors of Chicago and in six issues battled corrupt crime, white supremacy, and spoke on the well-being of a city that continues to face the various injustices he fought in the pages of the six-issue series. Nighthawk was a series that put real-world topics under the lens that other series rarely explore. That’s one of the liberties of taking a character not widely known or shelved and allowing a creator to let loose with them.

The surge of black writers that Marvel is grabbing to headline seasoned and newer characters of color is an upward trend that’s worth commenting on and a good sign of change for the company.

“It’s a long time coming. I wish it would’ve happened sooner and  I hope all of these titles succeed,” Adams said. “I also hope that these well-regarded writers and creators like myself from the music journalism world who have been immersed in comic book culture get an opportunity or a look as well.” David Brothers said he likes the surge, “but I want black and other non-white writers to be entrenched in the industry, rather than being something that's sprinkled around here and there as needed. It's important for non-white creators to add their voices to the stories of non-white characters who've been bereft of their perspective for decades. It's also important for the marquee white characters to have input from non-white voices. With this in mind, I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates on Captain America with Leinil Yu is arguably a bigger step forward than Brian Stelfreeze and Coates on Black Panther.

“What's most important with this surge is that it doesn't become a surge at all. It needs to become an accepted part of a landscape,” Brothers continues. “Six non-white writers working at Marvel right now is a good thing, but what are the numbers gonna be like next year? The year after that? How long before we get a black writer on a long run like Dan Slott on Spider-Man? That would feel like true progress to me, rather than a step on a path that could end at any moment.”

Writers like Rodney Barnes and Bryan Hill are recent additions to Marvel tasked with creating black characters. Barnes wrote the recently-created Rayshaun Lucas, who would become the new Patriot during the Secret Empire storyline. Hill wrote Afro-Latino youngster Miles Morales as Spider-Man, co-created by Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2011 to take over the mantle after the highly-publicized "Death of Peter Parker" storyline. Morales is the lead protagonist in the new hit film Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse, which webbed $35 million at the box office in its opening weekend.

"Superheroes are our modern myths. If we're going to have a healthy society, those myths have to be about all of us." – Saladin Ahmed

"Miles, is sort of the modern version of the Marvel ideal, which is a superhero that's an ordinary person confronted with hard choices and isn't a perfect, God-like figure but is just a regular person trying to do right," said Saladin Ahmed, who is taking over writing duties for the character in Miles Morales: Spider-Man, in a call with VIBE. "Back in the day that was Peter Parker but we're in a different era now. America looks different than it looked in 1962 and the things kids are dealing with is so different. ... He's black, he's also Puerto Rican, he's from Brooklyn, he's a little hipper maybe than Peter was. I think there's a reason a whole generation of fans is latching onto him."

“With superheroes in particular, they're really our modern myths," he continued. "The myths and the stories that a society tells, a culture tells, that tells you who can be a hero or villainized–and if we’re going to have anything like a healthy society that looks like all of us, then those myths have to be about all of us. The heroes in those myths have to look like and have names like all of us. There’s a separate question which is, creators. I don’t think the solution to a long, long lack of diversity is to have on-screen or on the page diversity but still have the same group of folks telling the story. I think it goes hand-in-hand.”

Rodney Barnes said his time on the Falcon series was a “tough task for a couple of reasons. It was my first time writing a comic so my rookie shortcomings were glaring, but it was an honor as well because the character did have the aforementioned legacy. It was truly an honor. It was a challenge. I’d always wanted to take Falcon out of the Steve Rogers space and place him in a world that demanded more from him emotionally. In some ways it worked and in others not so much. But it was an invaluable lesson.”

 

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Bryan Hill echoes some of the same sentiments about his recently released Miles Morales Annual. “For my Miles story, I used my own experience as a scholarship kid growing up, being poor around a bunch of (usually well-intentioned) kids that had a lot of family money. The imposter syndrome of it all. Those things wound up in the story, for sure. In that case, I think my experience added to the narrative, but I'm always looking for ways to put myself into the work. When I write Bruce Wayne for DC Comics, I draw on the grief and anger I felt after I lost my father as a kid. I'm always looking for ways in that stem from my life experience, but I want to be an example that writers of color can approach anything, any character and craft an effective story. I want to shatter those assumptions of interest and ability that are rooted solely in concepts of racial identity. If a white writer has a great story for Adonis Creed, then I want to see that story and if a black writer has a great take on Superman, well I want to see that story, too.”

With the recent additions of Coates, Gay, Okorafor and Dr. Ewing, black characters are getting their stories told not by traditional comic writers, but academics and authors. In 2015, word of Ta-Nehisi Coates being the writer of Black Panther caused a stir given his background as an author of black issues. He’s a superfan of Marvel Comics in general and his background delivered a long-term story that dived into the politics of Wakanda changing the nation forever, and T’Challa and Shuri’s roles as people. It also expanded Black Panther’s corner of the Marvel Universe into a full-blown section that allowed for Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda, Nnedi Okorafor’s Wakanda Forever trilogy installment, Coates and Yona Harvey’s Black Panther and The Crew and a slew of digital books all relating back to Black Panther. While the film appearance in Captain America: Civil War and his solo film may have pushed Black Panther into a household name in pop culture, the comics are going through a continued renaissance.

With World of Wakanda, Gay (a professor and New York Times best-selling essayist and novelist) and Harvey (a poet and an assistant professor at University of Pittsburgh) were the first black women to write for Marvel. It was a series that continued the story of two lovers, Ayo and Aneka, who were doubting their mission as members of Black Panther's Dora Milaje team of women guards and striking out on their own to find themselves. It was something different for the Marvel Universe: a series about black queer women that provided a love story while positioning them as more than background characters.

On the same hand, there’s a point surrounding who Marvel has enlisted to write black characters and stories. Writers like Coates, Gay, Ewing and Okorafor aren't known for writing comics but for their works on Afrofuturism, identity, black issues and politics. The approach has some longtime readers excited for the opportunity of new blood.

“It’s important to get writers that can handle certain subject matter, nuance and provide believable character arcs for a wide array of stories that traditional comic book creators have blind spots about,” Adams said. “These shortcomings are why we’ve critiqued certain titles and the handling of certain storylines.”

Brothers believes that enlisting these writers, despite them not having comic writing backgrounds, isn't as off-the-wall as it seems.

“Why wouldn't they [write comics]? Smarty-art types like rap music and superhero movies like anyone else, and comics can be a startlingly immediate way to connect with an audience,” he surmised. “It's a storytelling form like anything else, and big thinkers aren't new to the genre. If anything, they bring a perspective that we should always welcome, because the more meat there is on the bones of comics, the better everything is overall.”

Bryan thinks it's important that “writers be able to write whatever characters they want to write and can write well. “What's important to me is being an example that a person of color, a writer of color, isn't someone you only call when you have a character of color. That's limiting in another way, the expectation of perspective, of ability. Are there specific experiences I can invest into a black character from my own life? Sometimes, I see opportunities to bleed a little bit into a character.”

“I think it’s a great thing,” Barnes said. "Writers from different perspectives bring nuance and specificity to the stories they tell. The music may sound different to the untrained ear but that doesn’t diminish its quality.”

“I think there's definitely a conversation to be had about how those people were recruited. Relatively unknown white guys get on all the time, but when it comes to non-white folks, it's generally a group of people with outside buzz who get on at the big publishers," Barnes said. "The question of why that is, and what we can do about it, is an absolutely vital conversation to have. It's the only way people will understand how to move forward from here, rather than regurgitating the same process we're stuck in now, where there are a—for lack of a better phrase—Talented Tenth who get a shot, while everyone who's been grinding away at comics for years remains in the indies. It's a nuanced conversation to have, but I think it'd be a valuable one.”

In the meantime, readers will still have a dose of color to enjoy in their comics—and that's a welcome change to the game.

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Meet Zacari: The TDE Singer Whose Missed Path On 'The Voice' Led To Greater Blessings

In April 2017, Zacari left his first mark in the music industry when he appeared on Kendrick Lamar's album, DAMN. He was one of three features on the Grammy Award-winning project, standing next to Rihanna and U2, but his work on “LOVE.” made it a standout song on the album. Prior to 2017, the songbird was known as Zacari Pacaldo, an aspiring singer from Bakersfield, Calif. who has always known what he was destined to be.

His path into the music business, and what eventually led him to Top Dawg Entertainment, started right at home. The 23-year-old was born into a musical family. His mother Ede Pacaldo, a former drummer for rock bands, taught Zacari how to play the guitar, and his father passed down his love of blues and jazz music, which eventually led to the young singer being in a jazz band in high school.

Before he made his way to Los Angeles and underneath the wing of his manager Moosa Tiffith, son of TDE’s Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Zacari had a stint in Alaska where he worked for the summer after graduating high school. In The Last Frontier state, the musician spent his time in a lodge washing dishes, "but making good money," and most importantly being surrounded by wolves, which he has a storied love for. The musician strolled into VIBE's offices, flanked by a tiny entourage and subtly dripped down with a dangling claw earring, a fire red jacket and his signature curly hair tied up, to talk about his brief time on The Voice, who Zacari the artist truly is, and what to expect from his musical offerings going forward.

 

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@revolve x @fwrd 🔥 #revolvefestival 📸 @starksbxs

A post shared by lonewolf 🌑 (@zacarip) on Apr 14, 2019 at 1:23pm PDT

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VIBE: Where did you get your inspiration for your EP Run Wild, Run Free? Zacari: I lot of it came from real experiences up to this point. Even some lyrics are from high school and some other things. For this first EP, I wanted to make sure that you get to see my experiences and what's left at this point, even going back that far to high school. Even my experiences in Alaska as well, where I worked after high school. It all comes from that, it comes from growing up in the church making music, my parents, and the type of music they listen to as well. My mom was a rockstar. She used to be in bands, she taught me guitar. My dad was big on blues and soul music. I was in a jazz band in high school, so it's all those different elements and genres I was into. And of course hip-hop. My family and me, we've always had love for lots of different genres and different sounds, so it's all my experiences and all the music that's influenced me up until this point.

Did you always know you wanted to do music coming from this background? Yeah, since I was a little kid. There's old videos of me on the news as a little kid doing singing competitions and stuff like that. I even auditioned for The Voice like three times. I made it pretty far. I made it to the point where they review you and then they pick your interview—The singing part's done, now we just want to know if you have a crazy backstory—and I guess my stories were never that exciting.

So your path could have been completely different had you gone The Voice route? Yeah, I'm glad I didn't go to The Voice, but just the fact that I was preparing for it and practicing and going out and seeing what I could do is a big influence. Even playing for my church, that started in the seventh grade where I was leading a band. Seventh grade all the way through high school.

Did attending church influence the type of music you make? Yeah, definitely.  I'm always conscious about what I'm saying and I always want to make sure that I can at least leave the project with a positive outlook on it. I'm always thinking about what my parents would think if they heard the song. My family or my church, it's always kind of in the back of my mind when I'm writing music.

How long were you working on Run Wild, Run Free? This EP we were working on for almost three years, probably. A lot of the songs are two years old and the lyrics go back even further than that. It took three years to find a sound I was confident in. You go back on my old stuff that I still have, I've grown a lot. I was blessed to be in a situation where I could just be in the studio and that's it. I was sleeping on couches and stuff like that. My manager Moosa would help me pay my rent just so that I could stay in the studio, because when I first moved to L.A. I was on my own. I was working two jobs and going to the Musician's Institute. Once I met my manager, he really helped me get in situations where it was like, "f**k everything else, just be in the studio."

You mentioned your sound earlier. How would you describe the type of music you make? Or what kind of genre is it, if you wanted to categorize it? It's hard to categorize it because there's so many different elements that I draw from. R&B is an easy one to go to because that's the best way you could put it, but there's more. There's a lot of folk and indie elements as well. All the guitars in the album, I played. And there are folk parts coming from when I would cover old folk songs and John Mayer stuff. It's more like an experimental or indie R&B. Some of the songs are straight up R&B but on the other side of the EP there's a hip-hop sound like with "Midas Touch," and then "You Can Do Anything" has the guitars and the folk-type style.

 

What do you hope your fans get from this EP? What do you hope they're going to take in from you? I really want it to be like a breath of fresh air. It's a short EP, it's only like 20 minutes long, so before work or after work or when they're stressed, I want them to just play this. Press play, put their phone down and after that I want them to feel ready. I want them to feel refreshed. I want it to be a break, like a vacation almost.

And what should fans expect from Zacari in the future? Definitely a full-length album. We held back on this EP for sure. We almost added stuff and changed things but I have a lot more music in the cut. And also I'm definitely going to start doing more shows. That's one thing I'm focusing on, too. We just got a band so we're transitioning the EP into live versions, so it's fun to be working with a band again like I did back in church. It's a whole other thing of doing live performances. I'm excited, I love performing.

For a full-length album, who would you be interested in collaborating with? Who do you feel fits your vibe? I definitely want to get a verse with SZA. We've been bothering her forever and she's always like "yeah, yeah, yeah." Definitely SZA. I also want to work with [Lil] Uzi [Vert] or [Playboi] Carti. I want to get some sh*t from them. They're leading this new sh*t to me right now. There's a lot of that same genre, or people putting out the same sh*t, but to me it's Uzi and Carti at the top of that. I'd rather listen to them over any of the other people, if that makes sense. If I'm going to be listening to that sh*t, I'm going to the top standard and that's Carti and Uzi. Uzi's crazy, his melodies and his energy is insane. And then Carti's the same way. You can just press play on his sh*t and that sh*t hypes you up for the whole day. "Die Lit" is insane.

 

 

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all these TDE nominations 😭 so happy for everyone. BLACK PANTHER UP FOR ALBUM OF THE YEAR.

A post shared by lonewolf 🌑 (@zacarip) on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:26am PST

SZA's your label mate. What was your journey into Top Dawg Entertainment? It was mainly my manager. My manager Moosa is actually Top's son. He found me and he was managing me for years before he brought me around anyone, which is crazy because I'm the first artist he's actually discovered and brought into TDE. He worked with his dad, he managed [ScHoolboy] Q and he did all that but I was the first artist he started bringing around people. The first person I met was [Ab-]Soul. Me and Soul got along and that was before I met Top or anybody. So I was hanging out with Soul, I knew Zay [Isaiah Rashad] before then. Moosa hit up Q to use the studio while he was on Blank Face tour, so I was working in Q's house a lot. And then when Moosa finally set up a session with Kendrick and Kendrick cut the “LOVE.” record that's when his dad Top was like, "yeah bring him through. We've gotta talk." It was a long process. It wasn't like Moosa had found me and he took me to TDE. It was a long process. It was all organic, though. That was the best part of it. It was never forced. Everybody welcomed me, man. TDE is dope, TDE's really a family. You see it from the outside and you don't know what it is but on the inside all these people really grew up together, it's really tight knit.

Have you learned anything being around other TDE talent like SZA, Kendrick, Soul? Yeah, I've learned a lot and they'll talk to me about anything. It doesn't even have to be on some music sh*t. Q will talk to me about money. I'll go and ask him all kinds of questions about money. It's a crazy thing getting money from having nothing. This year I'm paying taxes for the first time—not the first time, I've had jobs before and paid taxes—but for like three or four years when I was in L.A. not making anything, I didn't have to pay any taxes. That's one thing I'm stressed about is my taxes. I'm happy I just put a lot of sh*t away. And then even talking to Kendrick about patience and stuff like that. That's a big person I talk to about anything, he's always kept it real with me. I can text him and call him and he'll respond to me. And that's the same with any member of TDE.

How'd you meet the right people to get in the music industry? It goes back far but it's really destiny, man. My roommate's cousin when I first moved to L.A. is Originist, who's a member of Soulelection. They went to J. Louis' house with them and that's where me and J. Louis made our first song, that first night I met him. And then me and J. Louis become like best friends so we're making music all the time, we're hanging out. He starts working with Bryson Tiller and I'm driving him to the studio and the house. So I'm chilling, and Bryson's hella cool, he let us all hang out, make music. Then Bryson had left the house studio for a couple of weeks and I remember Isaiah Rashad had come into use the studio with my manager Moosa. And I was playing saxophone too for Zay. Zay was like, "oh yeah you play sax? Play some sh*t on there." My manager Moosa took my phone number as a saxophone player. And I just kept tapping in with them. I played them the music I had with J and the Soulelection stuff and asked him to manage me. And that's how that worked out.

I met Teddy Walton there, too, the other producer. J. Louis and Teddy Walton did most of this EP. We're all really homies, we hang out we make music and I think that's a really important part of the sound, too. We can do a lot of trial and error and build everything from scratch. I met all those dudes at this one house, it's a studio house in the Hills that artists rent out if they're coming to L.A. to stay. It has a house and a studio separate. I met so many people there: my manager, Teddy, photographers, clothing people that we literally all still talk from this house. Producers, Sevn Thomas, Syk Sense. Syk Sense is on my project, too. We literally all went to this house and it's been going up since then.

Has the industry been what you expected it to be? Yeah, kind of, but honestly I got really lucky with my team and my people. We see a lot of the industry sh*t but I don't have to go through a lot of bullsh*t with my team. TDE and all my producers are all my friends so we're a very tight knit group. We're all honest with each other, you know what I mean? You really trust the people. Everybody that I work with I trust. They're really my friends. It's all about meeting the right people and earning trust and building relationships, so we kind of do our own thing. We don't really go through none of the bullsh*t. I haven't. So I'm lucky for that, ‘cause you see people that go through sh*t in the industry, but I'm confident in my sh*t. Everything that I'm doing is supposed to be happening, I'm going with it.

 

 

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Man happy birthday brother 😂 @groovyq

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You're from Bakersfield., Do you feel that they're proud of you? Hell yeah, man. I love my city, man. I see them all over my social media and stuff. I'm actually trying to do a show out there.

When you go there, is the energy nice? Yeah, ‘cause there's a venue there called Jerry's Pizza and it's like one of the main venues in Bakersfield that I used to go to shows. Whenever I go back to the city a lot of people come up to me in my town and talk to me and it's really dope, because in L.A. people recognize me but in L.A. people are less thirsty to come up to people there. In Bakersfield, it's really dope to be able to talk to people and the fans out there.

You see a lot of artists and they tell you that they're inspired now, so it's the best thing. Because not a lot of music comes out of Bakersfield. Korn came from Bakersfield and some country. It's dope to be one of the first new wave contemporary to come out of Bakersfield. It's dope man, I really love Bakersfield.

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Jesse Lirola

Take Five: The Roots Talk Nipsey Hussle's Leadership And The DNA Of Timeless Music

If it weren’t for oscillating spray fans dispersing cool mist across the dense crowd, the inside of the Heineken House would feel like a sweatbox. While bodies entranced by the boom and bass of old school hip-hop swayed from side to side, mouths rapped along to clever couplets floating along soulful melodies. Cold Heinekens sloshed around and splashed on beat-up shoes down below, but everyone was too busy jumping around to the transition of each song, broad smiles abound, to notice. That’s exactly how The Roots like it.

To say that Coachella Weekend 1 attendees were in for a treat is an understatement. Not only did they get to bask in the sounds of De La Soul during the 30-year celebration of their debut album 3 Feet High & Rising, but they were also able to bookend the experience with a two-hour, body-shaking headlining set by the legendary Roots Crew. “I've been feeling like we have really yet to throw a good dance party set,” Questlove says from his artist trailer with Black Thought looking on, “like a set that just makes people jam out.” Consider that mission accomplished.

After catching a quick breather post-show, both the iconic drummer and storied wordsmith chopped it up about the intended messages of their typically three-hour sets and after the untimely passing of Nipsey Hussle, what it means to be an active leader in one’s community.

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VIBE: During your set, you all went through a medley of songs that people—no matter who they are, where they come from or their age—will say, "this is a great song." What do you think is the DNA of that, and what can musicians now do to make sure that their songs can have a timeless feel like the hits you played today?

Questlove: I think the plan for us now, is—no pun intended—is to return to our roots. In our first five years, our show was heavy on doing hip-hop classics, soul classics, and Roots songs mixed at the same time. We're up to 17 albums now, so we sort of phased that out and just concentrated on our catalogue. But I don't know, lately, I've been feeling like we have really yet to throw a good dance party set, like a set that just makes people jam out. Normally it’s just about the virtuoso acrobatics of what The Roots can do, a lot of soul and that stuff. This is probably our most groove-oriented set that we've done, really paying homage to a lot of original, classic great beats that are the foundation of hip-hop. Important covers of Donald Byrd songs and James Brown songs, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. Going through all the genres, doing go-go and doing all that. For us it was just about turning Heineken House into a two-hour dance party.

Black Thought: I think for emerging artists, the key to creating those timeless classics is to revisit and re-acknowledge the timeless classics. You're into electronic dance music, you're into hip-hop, you're into whatever's the modern take on the culture. You have to revisit the foundations and the songs from which you came. The joints that were sampled, those are the songs that the configuration may evolve or may change, but those elements are always going to stand the test of time. Our foundation initially was to educate the audience. We would always sort of do Hip-Hop 101, and that sort of became a part of the Roots brand. And yeah, I guess we abandoned it for awhile and just focused on a more conceptual set. It was more Roots-oriented, and now this most recent set that we've been doing is back to the Hip-Hop 101. Not even Hip-Hop 101 but just Good Music 101. If you can incorporate at least one or a part of some of those elements of those songs that are tried and true, then you're well on your way.

And there's so much room to play. Like you said, there are so many different genres now that you can't even pull them apart from each other.

BT: Absolutely, the lines have been blurred. And that's something else to consider. You want to be as inclusive as possible with your set without it feeling contrived, you know what I mean? As artists you do a performance that is basically the music that inspires you to do what it is that you do, then it looks and feels and reads a lot more personal. Than if it’s like, "oh this is my new album."

Black Thought, you are a proud and true lyricist. Is there any new school lyricist that you’d like to go toe-to-toe with on wax?

BT: I could go toe-to-toe with anybody, anywhere, on the Planet Earth. But I mean, do I have the desire? I don't know, man. I'm getting so old, you know. I definitely enjoy performing on stage with The Roots. It's when I’m most at home. But I've done lots of the stage and studio collaborations that I've always sort of dreamed of. We've done it. I've been blessed enough to have the opportunity to do that. I mean it's still lots of people that I would like to work with. Rappers? I don't know. I'm down to work with anyone as long as it's an organic collaboration. Anyone that I've ever worked with, it's not like I just meet you or someone throws us together for the sole purpose of coming up with a song that's gonna be a hit. I have to have some sort of relationship, or we had to have interacted on some other sort of level and that's when it feels most natural. But I'm down to work with whoever.

Lastly, Nipsey Hussle’s passing really stirred people into thinking a lot more about action, intention, purpose and what it means to be a leader. What, to you, is leadership, and how do you put leadership in what you do?

QL: It's really insane that it took his death to really make people realize what they can do to better themselves as human beings. I'm really glad he was a brother that definitely put his money where his mouth is and there's nothing pretentious about him, nothing performative woke, because that's also a dangerous thing in 2019—to just preach it and tweet it but not really put it in motion. I feel as though the best thing that can come from this will be the enlightenment. Even if it's just four people affected, the enlightenment of someone realizing they can invest in businesses and property and their neighborhood. That's a start. It's really a shame that it took this to bring that to life, but nevertheless it's been brought to life.

BT: To me I think leadership is activism. It's giving back to your community, it's investing in oneself, and you know women and children. It's giving back when the cameras aren't there. When it's going to be anonymous. When you're not necessarily going to get the credit for what you're doing right away. And I feel like that's the sort of activist that Nipsey was. It's building up and empowering the people around you to be their best selves and not just for the headline or the glory.

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One Day In L.A.: Inside Kanye West's Sunday Service Sanctuary

On one weekend in Los Angeles (March 31), I got the unique opportunity to partake in an otherworldly experience: Kanye West’s Sunday Service. It was transformative, to say the least, but that weekend, something else happened in L.A., too. Nipsey Hussle was murdered in front of his Marathon clothing store. A black man’s life was taken in cold blood, and as we collectively mourn, Kanye’s Sunday Service makes so much more sense in the context of this senseless murder.

But first, how did I even wind up at Ye’s exclusive weekly praise and worship-esque Sunday Service? I really have some dope people that continue to grace my life. Through all the things that I’m passionate about—my job, music, art, motherhood—I became friends with a music producer/actor/musician who was kind enough to get me on the list for service.

I’m a true audiophile, and my love of music, especially live instrumentation, had me all into those Sunday Service videos popping up on social feeds for some time. I was that kid in church texting my best friend, the church organist, to kick off the Holy Ghost session. I’m the same person who will slide to a jam session in any city I travel to just to catch a vibe. The music really spoke to me in the videos and I felt like this is the place where Kanye was getting back to his original self. I wanted to experience that. The nature of Sunday Service was so far from any of his “slavery is a choice” statements and wild Trump rhetoric that it forced me to wash away the negative sentiments and take this experience for what it was.

 

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A post shared by c a t e w r i g h t (@catewright) on Apr 14, 2019 at 3:41pm PDT

I approached the mountainous California ranch locale with wonder, anticipation, and some lightweight hesitation: What if they making us draw blood and we have to sacrifice a lamb? What if they’re turning water to wine in here? What happens if they have us pass a collection plate for the building fund? I didn’t bring cash. What if he’s got people in the spot saying Yeezus instead of Jesus? My co-worker friend Lena and I pulled up to the gates just before 9 a.m. We got to the entrance and were checked off on the list, then were ushered in by greeters wearing all white. Most of the people inside were white, so I made a quiet joke that maybe this was Kanye’s attempt at enslaving white people and forcing them to make a “choice.” But then I saw some black staff members which put that conspiracy theory to rest.

As we waited in the estate’s holding area, a barista offered delicately crafted matchas and lattes with frothy designs. The cool L.A. air and wispy tree leaves carried the sounds of the choir and band rehearsing. We could also hear the stories of other people who waited: a white woman in her 30s who was there to see her boyfriend in the choir and really didn’t know what to expect; older neighbors who had a standing invite to Sunday Service; a black music producer from Houston whose friend was in the band; an L.A. artist who was the plus-one of one of his homies; a Latino family with their five-year-old little girl, her brother, mom and dad outfitted in Balenciaga.

Finally, we were ushered in about seven to 10 people at a time. We ascended a hill on a dirt road that took us to a rotunda. Soft music could be heard as the choir, the band, and Ye stood around dressed in all white. It was intimate, intimate, with around 75 people in the rotunda, and about 75 as a part of the band-slash-choir. Everyone was real chill, doing the little church hellos. And just like in the videos, the whole Kardashian family was there—except I didn’t see Rob, Mama Kris, or Caitlyn. I don’t really follow the Kardashians just because I actually can’t keep up, but they do have some beautiful children. The girls (North included) were so full of life and joy, like any other kids, which was refreshing. For whatever reason, I’m always so happy to see celebrity kids having what appears to be a carefree childhood.

 

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A post shared by lemarguillary (@lemarguillary) on Apr 7, 2019 at 7:21pm PDT

OK, onto the actual service. All I can say is think of the best church choir you’ve ever heard, then swag them out, drop some 808s on that, then put this all in the mountains closer to God. It was magic. Unpretentious, unassuming, beautiful, soulful, groove-evoking and as much as it was gospel, it was the rhythm and syncopation of hip-hop. It was Milly Rock. It was shaking dreads. It was soul claps. It was a few white folks clapping off-beat. It was dope. As a music lover with a keen ear for sound, I could tell each instrument and voice was hand-selected for a reason. And even with Kanye as the mastermind, my friend mentioned that he felt tertiary. I would even go as far to say he felt like the fifth element. It was God, the nature, the people, the band and choir, then Ye. Each song had medicinal purpose. There were recordings of Kanye’s voice orating about life and purpose and all of the questions we ask as we attempt to ascend and evolve. It was all so timely. I strive to live a purpose-centered life, but some portions feel like they need further definition. This felt like a catapult, like a launching pad, like a playground for inspiration.

Now slight pause, because I know you’re thinking, WE CANCELLED KANYE, VEJURNAÉ. He’s been too detrimental to the culture. He’s trying to trick you with these soulful beats and 808 machines, and some Jesus and matcha. Ni**a, you’re kiki-ing with Yeezy over some beats and tea. I thought about this, too. And still am. I think where I sit is a place that is all about purpose and intent. Kanye says some outrageous and outlandish things at times, some that we support and some that we go in on him for, but who doesn’t? What he is doing in this arena has greater weight than probably anything else he has ever done, in my eyes. What he’s doing will potentially change the way that millennials interact with church. It’s a needed shift. One guy we sat with said, “If church was like this, I’d never miss a Sunday.” We’ll get back to this, though.

It’s hard for me to recall the set list. Aly Us’ “Follow Me” was dope. (They need to bring this to the house picnic.) They did Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.” For the church folk, the choir made this song effortless, but added a syncopation with the 808s that I will never forget. Most people know how completely perfect this specific song is, but this arrangement was PERFECTER. Yes, perfecter. The harmonies with the Amens, and breaking them down almost into footwork beats. Flipping back when they get to, “You are the source of my strength,” to hit the 808s and bring it back again. It was just... Shout out to my Second Baptist Church family that knows that Dr. Hycel B. Taylor special ending.

Then there was Stevie Wonder’s “I’ll Be Loving You Always.” That song is LOVE. I actually suggested it to my producer friend in the band a few weeks before I came to L.A. I know, that’s an extra request, and who am I? But my Mom always said, “If you never ask you’ll never know.” And yo, it actually happened. The band jammed with Kanye on the drum machine. HOW IS THIS MY LIFE? Pinch. THIS IS MY LIFE. The day before I left to go out west, my sons and I did car karaoke to this song. And how special is it that Kanye is sharing these moments with his kids, his family, his friends and the world? It’s special.

In the circular space, I was seated at eye level with Ye and the 808 machine. This was wild. You know when you’re a musician and you look at the crowd and you know who’s vibing? I was in that motherf**ker VIBING. For anyone who attends parties with me, church services, karaoke, in the car, it’s a given that music and dancing is a thing. Do you think I’m going to pull up to Kanye church and not f**k it up for Jesus (no disrespect)? With the sun beating down on all of us, the music accelerated. Then, I thought about deodorant… Have you ever started sweating hard and been hot and start thinking, How many swipes did I do this morning? Mind you, they are performing all the songs that require you to put your fully extended hands in the air… The dilemma! I just had to do a side sniff for freshness and deal with the pit stains, because I took my locs down and it was just like nirvana. We’re out here on a mountain praising God with a full choir, band and Kanye is smiling, smiling, playing the beat machine. Ni**a, whet!?

They also played some Ye classics like “Power,” “Jesus Walks,” “Good Morning,” and “Otis.” “Jesus, won’t leave us/Neva leaveeee us/NA NA,NA NA, NAH NAH NAH!” All the while, the babies are in the middle of the performance area living their best lives, dancing with their daddy. It was love. The purest love. Unadulterated God-sent love. The intensity of the band never waned, the choir never diminished, and the soloists were straight from Sister Mary Clarence for real, for real. I did the, “girl, Goodbye, you sing too good” wave about four times and I needed another cup of water, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

 

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A post shared by What's Hatnin'? (@whatshatninpc) on Apr 9, 2019 at 1:04am PDT

When service ended and Ye announced that Sunday Service would be at Coachella during Weekend 2, we all then proceeded further up the hill for a full catered brunch. (Note: They had the thick bacon and at brunch, that is all anyone cares about, so thank you for that.) During the brunch, folks shared stories, networked, and simply took it all in. The West/Kardashian family mingled and embraced everyone on some regular Sunday after church service ish. I sat still in awe, thankful for the experience. I thought to go over to his table to say thank you, but I chilled because, you know, sometimes you just don’t want to be extra, so I just kept it moving recapping everything with my friend and airing out my underarms.

Post-brunch, we walked back down the hill and chatted with gospel artist Ricky Dillard about how positive the music was and how transformative the experience was. Once we got back to the original holding area, we saw Ye was just standing there talking to people as they left. Now was my time.

Me: (Gives Ye a hug) Yo, thank you. Ye: Yo, I saw you vibing girl. Me in My Head: NI**A, WHAT! I SAW YOU VIBING, TOO. THAT SH*T WAS BANANAS! Me in Real Life (Remembers this is like church): I’m from Chi-town. Man, that was just amazing! It’s really going to change how young people approach church. Me in My Head: You should let me bring Cairo and Phoenix out to Coachella. Me in Real Life: I remember booking you when you came to [The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] back in the beginning of your career. The show was like $11. Ye: (Smiles) And look, this one cost even less. Me in Real Life: (Laughs) You’re right. You need to bring this back to the crib. Ye: Definitely, we’re on mission work!

 

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A post shared by Jammcard (@jammcard) on Apr 17, 2019 at 10:07am PDT

All of it was awesome. From the restorative power of the music to the purpose-driven message to the people out here giving their full glory to God. No additional anything. It was like, Let’s go praise God and that will be sufficient, that will be enough. Let’s put our full effort into praising the Lord and see where that gets us.

In retrospect, I think this energy is the same energy and same fervor that Nipsey used to inject into his community. Like, let’s see what it looks like when I empty the tank for my hood, for my people, for these kids. Nipsey being murdered on the same day of this experience felt like someone took a pin, popped the balloon and let all the helium out. After the Ye experience, we went to Malibu, then to Venice Beach to meet up with friends. That’s when the news that he had been shot six times and killed in front of his own store broke. Like many, I was at a loss for words. Just hours ago, I felt so inspired and hopeful, and now I sat in disbelief and anger. People in L.A. were so hurt. I was so hurt. It was essentially as if someone ever did something to Chance The Rapper—the hometown guy, the home team, the one that never left but instead building up his area, investing in his people. Slain.

The one thing that felt even more real after this day was the immediacy of now. Each and every moment is your moment. Waiting won’t get the job done. If you want to make an impact, you have to take the steps now. If you want a life of value, you have to move. I reflect back on the images of Nipsey and his partner Lauren London from their ethereal GQ shoot and I think about how striking those images are. They’re so beautiful. To have love captured on camera in that way and so close to him being murdered is unfathomable. In summation, whatever “it” is to you, do it now. Have that conversation, tell them you love them, make that move, invest in that business, repair that relationship, quit that job. Make it happen today, and know that regardless, whether His presence manifests through the pews of church or some rattling 808s or the warmth of the community that raised you, God is with you.

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