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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(L-R) Flex Alexander and Shanice attend the Soul Train Weekend Kick-Off Party on November 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

Interview: Flex and Shanice Talk 'Virtual House Party,' Staying Together And That Call From Aretha Franklin

Shanice and Flex Alexander are ‘90s Black pop culture in the form of husband and wife. Shanice was an R&B ingenue with a hypnotic smile and powerful voice beyond her years when her sophomore album Inner Child propelled her to pop status thanks to the 1991 hit “I Love Your Smile.” Flex was a background dancer for acts like Sal-N-Pepa, before becoming a comedic actor and a mainstay on our TV sets during the golden era of Black TV in the ‘90s through early ‘00s.

After years of pulling in approximately $25K per week (according to Alexander) and not knowing how to properly manage the income, the couple lost their home, liquidated their assets, and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. They chronicled part of their journey with their reality show Flex and Shanice on OWN from 2014 to 2016 and are now positioning themselves for their respective next career chapters.

A big part of Flex’s next chapter was announced in July, when Netflix revealed they were bringing a slate of UPN shows from the early ‘00s arriving to the app this Fall. The line up includes Girlfriends, on which Flex originated the role of Darnell Wilkes; and One on One, which features Alexander as a single dad to teenage Kyla Pratt (and also features Shanice singing the theme song). Following the eagerly met premieres of classics Moesha, Girlfriends, and The Parkers, One on One and Half & Half (Essence Atkins and Rachel True) premiered on Thursday on the video streaming platform.

The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, talked to VIBE recently about adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic, growth as a married couple, and that time Aretha Franklin asked her to play a role in the upcoming Respect biopic.


VIBE: How have you all been doing with everything that's going on?

Shanice: We're hanging in there. (Flex) doesn't like it when I say, "We're hanging in there."

Flex: We are doing exceptionally well. We are alive, we are healthy. Just dealing with it like everybody else, taking it one day at a time because you can't really plan too far ahead.

Did you ever think that we would be going through something like this?

Shanice: No, never. Flex said he kind of...Didn't you say over the years you thought...No. You said you read a lot of books and stuff.

Flex: Yeah. I do a lot of reading and stuff from my college days. Just stuff that talk about this stuff that's going on I like to get into. Everybody thinks it's conspiracy or whatever, but I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime. It is an adjustment for everyone. Like she said, we try to find the positive in it. We sit at the table, we eat dinner at the table, we can sit down. I say, "Baby, do you want to watch a movie?" We sit there and just hang out. Before, we were just crossing [paths where] everybody's hustling and grinding, hustling.

With the senseless police killings, racism seems to be at an all-time high. What type of conversations are you guys now having with (teenage children) Elijah and Imani now that they're older and this could happen to them or any other young adult? What are you telling them?

Flex: This is something I know I've been talking to Elijah about not just since this. When he was younger, just explaining him as a young Black kid, being a Black teenager turning into a young Black man, just the crosshairs that's on their back. You talk to them about if you're pulled over what to do, what not to do. We don't like to let him ride. He has friends that have cars and I'm like, "No, four or five of you all in the car? No. That's an open invitation." It hurts us because their regular daily livelihood has just changed. They would just walk down the street to the store. Now, we're like, "No."

Shanice: He [Elijah] has one friend that we allow him to be around. One of them wanted to play basketball and wanted me to drop them off at the park and I said no. There was a noose in our area.

Flex: Less than a mile from our house.

Shanice: Less than a mile from our house, there was a noose at the park. I sat in the car and I just watched him play. Normally, I would just drop him off and come back and pick him up, but I don't feel safe anymore.

Flex: And we have to have the conversation with Imani as well because it's not just relegated to just men and boys, women, too. We get ahead of the conversation, but they are very keen. Listen, information is traveling fast. They got these phones, they see stuff as well. A lot of the time, they tell us stuff and we're like, "What?" We just try to instill in them the best that we can and just pray over them.


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Throwback photo of @flexaforeal and I ♥️ We look like kids Flex lol

A post shared by shanice (@shaniceonline) on Sep 21, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

Shanice, nobody sounds like you. You were a young pop icon, not just as an R&B artist, but also in pop - and paved the way (for other young crossover singers). How does that feel today?

I just feel blessed to have longevity in this industry. I've had my ups and downs. You know how crazy this industry is and sometimes you get frustrated and it's like, "Why am I doing this? I want out. I don't want to do this anymore." But then, when I get online and I talk to the fans directly on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it keeps me going. I get emotional because I've had some great moments in the industry, but then I've had some very low moments and it gets frustrating sometimes. I love music. I love singing. It's in my blood. I've been singing since I was seven months. I do it because I love to sing and I love my fans. I have the best supporters out there.

You both are such a likable couple and people gravitate to you from all walks of life, from all nationalities. What is it about you two that they can identify with Flex and Shanice?

Flex: Just being us.

Shanice: I think we're just being ourselves.

Flex: We're just being ourselves. I'm on here deejaying on Instagram and she's here dropping it like it's hot. (Shanice laughs) That's what she does. We just try to be ourselves and we show a little bit of that doing the reality show and sharing what we went through because we wanted people to know what we went through and that you can come out of it. We just don't, I'm going to say a real old school word, we don't put on airs-

Shanice: Airs. (Laughs) That is real old school.

Flex: ... for anyone. We're in here every day. I want to throw it back to her real quick. I see the pain and stuff that she goes through the ups and downs and disappointments. Even through all this, you're still like, "Man, is it a place you want to reach?" She feels like, "I didn't get there." I said, "Listen, you've had more success than a lot of people and it may not have been here, but people love you." Whether they like to hear it or not, she's paved the way. There's no dig against anybody because a lot of them have said it. You paved the way for the Monicas, the Brandys. Beyonce even spoke to her and told her Solange sang your song (“I Love Your Smile”) at a talent show. I try to tell her just, "Hold on to that and just keep doing what you're doing," because you see where everything is going in the business, in the industry. And to have a good name and people that love you, I think, is a great thing. That brings longevity.

You guys have been staying creative. I see you’ve been doing virtual house parties. Who came up with that concept?

Flex: It came from me starting deejaying back in 2016. I was doing it once a week. Every Thursday I was doing, and she would be in the bed. When we got here, I started doing it again. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I just jumped on, and then she came over and then just started—

Shanice: I was like, I said, "Let me be your hype girl." (Laughs)

Flex: It worked. It's at a point now where if I get on it by myself, people are like, "Where's Shanice?"

Shanice: I like to drop it like it's hot. (Laughs) It’s fun.

Flex: It helps our mind because we didn't know what ...I'm talking about when it was like March when it was cold and rainy out there and all of this gloom and doom...we didn't know what was happening. The people that came in and people that were on our page, people said, "Yo, this helped me so much get through the night or helped me get through the week. Man, that meant more than anything." I didn't care if there were 10 people on there or 10 thousand. We just go on there. We shout everybody out.


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Thank you EVERYONE for rocking last night!!! We appreciate your undying support, to our day one #LockdownwithFlex family you already know!!! And my fellow New York brother @lilcease thanks for hanging last night we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane✊🏾✊🏾

A post shared by flexaforeal (@flexaforeal) on Jul 24, 2020 at 11:39am PDT

Flex, you’ve written and produced your own TV show, you’re a comedian....Are you working on any other current TV projects? Will we see you on a screen again soon?

Flex: Before I mention that, I'm excited about Netflix releasing One on One. It was through the Strong Black Lead who really pushed for us to be in more places and to have another life. This is crazy because two years ago, I wrote the reboot. I had it ready to go, and then that happened and I'm like, "Man, This is perfect."

Shanice: It's perfect timing.

Flex: This could lead right to it. I'm thankful for that. I just wanted to throw that out there. We have an animated series that we're working on now. We just got a showrunner attached and we're working on that. I have a drama that I've developed right before the COVID hit. We also worked with a Black-owned company called Ceek, where we do the Flex and Shanice Virtual House Party. They have great programs and they do live concerts. They've had Elton John, they've had Lady Gaga.

Shanice: Jennifer Lopez.

Flex: They have DL Hughley on there with Chris Spencer, [and] we're on there now. What they're trying to do is create this virtual experience [where] I come in, I deejay, [you] put your (VR headset) on and you're in the party. It’s great to partner with them and just continue to stay active and creative. It just keeps you going.

Shanice: And I've been doing live concerts in my living room.

Flex: Yeah. It's crazy because we've worked a lot.

Shanice: We've been doing so much in this living room. (Laughs) Like Flex said, we were working before the pandemic, we're working our butts off more now.

Tell us how you balance being in the entertainment business, being stars, having a family and being married. You're probably going to tell me love, but there has to be something else besides love that has kept you together. What do you think it is?

Flex: Honestly, praying is the first.

Shanice: Praying. Yes.

Flex: And communication. We can agree to be disagreeable.

Shanice: We've had our ups and downs. It's not like it's been all great, but we do love each other and we don't go to bed angry. We're mad at each other and we try to talk it out, and I just feel like you’ve got to try to make it exciting and you can't get too comfortable. People, after a while, they get bored in their relationship.

Flex: There are times that she ain't checking for me; she doesn't like me right now, so I'll come downstairs and she'll be up here. There's time's out like that. We go to different parts of the house and we figure it out.

Shanice: And we try to give each other a little space to breathe. We may come back to the situation and talk about it.

Flex: Every day you figure it out, you grow. I think I'm understanding who I am more now at 50 than I did at 30 or 35. I just love being here, being with my family, us having fun together, the kids. It's a beautiful thing, man. It's a beautiful thing.

Flex, what’s one thing that Shanice has taught you about being married? What have you learned from her?

Flex: Growth. I would say growth because if there's anybody that I've seen grow is her. If there's anybody I've seen with perseverance, it’s her. Her patience, her kindness, her. It has really taught me to listen more because as the man you're like, "I got it." She says, "Something ain't right," and I'm like, "I got it." Learning how to cut that off in my brain and go, "You know what? I need to listen. I need to listen to her. I need to hear her." I think that was probably one of my biggest hurdles is not that I didn't listen, but listen and go out, really listen and apply it. I've just seen so much from her in 20 years that I'm just like, "Wow, man. We've got 100 more to go." I just want to grow some more, and we’ve got more fun to have and love to have. We're done with the babies, though.

Shanice: Right. No more babies.

Flex: We're done with the babies.

Shanice: No more babies.

Flex: No more babies.

Shanice, what one thing Flex has taught you, or that you’ve learned by being married and connected to him for so long?

Shanice: I've learned that people over the years grow and they change, and sometimes you have to learn how to go with the change. I've learned to try to adjust to the change because we're not the same people we were 20 years ago.

Flex: Not in a bad way, though.

Shanice: Not in a bad way.

Shanice, you’re an international pop star. You started in pop and then crossed back to R&B, and can travel the world with just “I Love Your Smile.” That's big in itself, but can you share some of your greatest accomplishments? 

I think when I got nominated for a Grammy, that was like a big highlight for me because when I was a little kid I used to always look in the mirror and I used to practice my speech. I used to always dream about getting awards. I have several moments: the Grammys, (Aretha) Franklin, rest in peace—when she turned 50 the Queen of Soul reached out to me and flew me and my band and my dancers down to her house. I did a whole concert in her living room with a band and dancers and everything. That was so big for me.

Meeting Michael Jackson, singing on three of his records. I sang in the background for like three songs, and that was big for me. Just being able to travel all over the world. “I Love Your Smile” was No. 1 in..I believe it was 22 countries. I've traveled all over the world and I'm still traveling the world because of that song. “Saving Forever For You” was a big record for me as well with Diane Warren and David Foster. That went to No. 5. It didn't go No. 1, but it was almost number one. That was another big pop record for me. So you're right. I came out pop and then I crossed over to R&B.

I’ve got another Aretha story. I have to say this. I was having one of my moments when I was frustrated about the industry. I was home and I was crying and I said, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." I was feeling really low. I was like, "I'm done. I don't want to do this." And then, Flex came home and he was like, "Somebody reached out to me.” I think it was Aretha’s sister-in-law saw Flex and said Aretha wants to get in touch with Shanice. Here’s her cell number. So Flex comes home and says, "Miss Franklin wants to get in touch with you. This is her cell number." I'm like, "Me? Really?" I called her and we talked for like probably an hour. We talked for a long time, and she said, "I reached out to you because I want to tell you I know real talent when I hear it, and you got it." This is when I was feeling down. This was nothing but God telling me keep going.

So she said, "We had auditions. I'm doing a movie about my life, my life story." And she said, "Most likely Jennifer Hudson is going to play me, but I would love you to play my sister." I’m sitting on the phone like, "Yeah!" They'd been talking about this movie forever. Even when she was alive they were talking about the movie, and I said, "Anything you need. I would love to be a part [of it]." We talked several times over the years about the movie. Unfortunately, she passed. I think God wanted just to encourage me to keep going. I think that's why that happened. It was just to tell me to keep going. I just had to share that story.

Flex, what would you say to the younger Flex as he’s just starting out in the entertainment industry?

Take everything in more. Enjoy it. Don't fly through it so fast. Tell the people you love that you love them while you have them. I would have learned more about the business on the financial side to plan better. Those would probably be the things I would say, but I think overall, it would be to take it all in, sit back and take it in more. I think things happen so fast and it's like, I'm here, I'm there, I'm dancing, Salt-N-Pepa here, boom, traveling the world. And then, you think it's all going to keep going. You think it's all going to just last forever. And then, next thing you know, you look back and the time has passed and all you have is maybe a picture. I think that would be the thing I would tell myself.

Shanice, what would you tell up and coming talent that is trying to break into the entertainment business?

Shanice: I would tell them to definitely do it not for the money, do it for the love. The money and all that stuff will come. Believe in yourself. Back when I started, you had to get the approval of a huge record exec to put you out there. And now, because of the internet, you don't have to wait on somebody to tell you if you're good or not. You can put out your music on iTunes and get out there and create an audience online. I would say just don't give up on yourself, keep trying. It may not happen overnight. It might. There are people like Justin Bieber. He got on YouTube and he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Everybody's story is different, but you just have to keep trying and keep believing in yourself.

Flex: Yes.

Shanice: Just don't give up. You’ve got to keep going. Even when it seems like it's impossible, you just gotta keep going.

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Then & Now: Common Details How He And J Dilla Collaborated On The "Thelonious" Track With Slum Village

J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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