2018 Billboard Music Awards - Show
Honoree Janet Jackson accepts the Icon Award onstage during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Music Sermon: Janet Jackson's Early Chapters

In honor of Janet Jackson's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, VIBE revisited the early chapters and shows how the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…became one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

The third time’s a charm. After twice being nominated and snubbed, Janet Jackson has finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This year has been Jackson’s year of redemption – scratch that, vindication. A year that felt like a moratorium on her career was finally fully lifted. The obsessive extent of recently-ousted Viacom head Les Moonves’ vendetta against Jackson following the infamous 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” has come to light, and Janet has triumphantly returned to the public eye in a way she hasn’t been since that ill-fated halftime performance. She resumed the tour she postponed due to pregnancy, and returned to the charts with her 20th No. 1 single, “Made for Now.”

But this isn’t a story about Janet the Icon. Those stories abound. She’s a symbol of sexual liberation, of feminism and empowerment, of LGBT+ allyship, of live performance mastery, of dance legend–we know those things. This is a story about how she got there, and how remarkable it is that the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…is also one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself. Janet is the only Jackson sibling to fly even remotely close to the sun that is Michael’s level of success, and she did it by deliberately separating herself from the family — and her brother. Janet’s success story is tied to her journey of finding her own identity, not unlike the journey Solange had to take decades later to separate herself from her superstar sibling. When Jackson is discussed now, what’s kind of left out of her narrative is how she struggled for years to find her place, her role, and her footing pre-Control. The big origin story is her break away from Jackson family patriarch and career mastermind Joe, but we don’t really talk about what that looked like for her the way we’ve examined with her siblings. Nor do we really talk about how exceptional her ascent was, forging her way under the shadow of not only a megastar sibling, but an increasingly scandalized family, to be taken seriously in her own right and on her own terms.

From early on, the baby Jackson had an outsized personality and talent for her age. Possibly even bigger than her brother’s when he was a young old soul thrust into the spotlight. Janet has said she wasn’t even considering entertainment aspirations, thinking instead of maybe one day becoming a professional jockey until Joe Jackson put her in the family’s Las Vegas show at age seven. From that point until her young adulthood, Janet’s career was by her father’s design, not her own.

Sassy young Janet was a massive hit as part of the family’s revue, paired with Randy to cover songs by popular male/female duos including Sonny and Cher and Mickey and Sylvia. They specialized in that specific brand of cuteness derived from kids acting “grown.” She hit her marks, lines and cues like a pro three times her age. Janet seemed aware even at a tender age what was expected of her, because “….in the Jackson 5 family, everybody works.”

Grown-up sass — hints of the Janet we’d encounter with Control — in an adorable little afro-puffed, chubby-cheeked package was her thing. She was gifted with a knack for completely age-inappropriate impressions, including her signature, Mae West (this would be such a problem in 2018).

The littlest Jackson arguably stole the show, continuously, with a stage presence, energy, and professionalism that not only matched, but in some cases rivaled that of her siblings. Joe allegedly considered packaging Janet with older sisters Rebbie and LaToya as The Jackson Sisters, but differences between the older two kept that from gaining traction.

Norman Lear spotted Janet in her family’s act, and after the short-lived The Jacksons variety TV show went off the air, he had her audition for Good Times. Janet was added to the post-James Evans (Damn, damn, DAMN) cast as the scrappy, abused Penny Gordon: a lovable, adorable girl who follows J.J. home, and whom Wilona eventually adopts. This was many Gen Xers first introduction to Janet, even if through syndication.

While big brothers were out conquering the music world — Michael with Off the Wall and Thriller, then the brothers as a reunited group for the Victory album and tour — Janet cultivated an acting career. In the early ‘80s Janet was really actress first, singer second, with roles on Diff’rent Strokes and then Fame. Roles that still allowed her to sing, though. After all, she was still a Jackson.

Janet has said that she wanted to continue down the acting road, but Joe wanted her to record. So that’s what she did. She debuted with an eponymous teen soul joint, bolstering production from R&B staples such as Angela Winbush, Foster Sylvers (of the I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-the-Jacksons, Sylvers family) and The Time member Jesse Johnson.

Then, when that album failed to make significant noise, she released the bubblegum pop confection, Dream Street. Both albums were decent outings; not bad, but pretty unremarkable. They didn’t make room for Janet’s actual talent at all. The sense that she was placed where she needed to be and told what she needed to do came across in the music and her performances. Not that she wasn’t a consummate performer, but she was only at about a level two compared to the Janet we would see just a couple of years later.

The albums weren’t working, and she wasn’t feeling it, either. At one point, she was disillusioned with both acting and singing, and considered going to college. She’d made friends with kids from South Central during a moment of adolescent normalcy in junior high school (the Jackson siblings were mostly tutored), and some of them were now at Pepperdine University.

Instead, she followed a Jackson rite-of-passage: rebelling against Joe’s constraints in a declaration of independence. Jermaine did it by marrying Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel and staying behind on Motown when his brothers left. Big sister LaToya’s moment was posing for Playboy. Janet rebelled by eloping at 18 with someone who understood her better than most probably could. James DeBarge was a member of an entertainment family patterned after her own, and had become a confidant for her in the absence of brother Michael. The marriage was fraught with problems and annulled after about a year, but James brought her back to music and provided her with some much-needed life experience to channel into her work. She told music journalist David Ritz (who, for a while, was one of the only journalists to secure in-depth interviews with Janet during every album cycle), “My marriage was rough, but it deepened my emotions, it made me think about life, and it pushed me towards independence.”

The Control album is when the world first met Janet Damita Jo Jackson, forreal forreal. It was the first time we heard her stories, her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences, instead of those thrust upon her by others. And it was uncomfortable as hell for her, at first. Family friend and A&M Records Head of Urban Music John McClain connected her with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her third album, forging one of the most important producer/artist relationships in music. The story from there is music lore: Jam and Lewis bring her to Minneapolis, take her to the club, encourage her to explore the city and have experiences to inform the album. What isn’t usually mentioned in that narrative is A&M’s reluctance to record another Janet album at all. “The company didn’t know how dynamic she is,” McClain told Rolling Stone. “…I knew that Michael and Jermaine and Tito and Jackie are real quiet, but when the red light is on in on the studio or when the spotlight hits, they turn into different people. Basically, I had an idea of what Janet had in her.”

Learning to trust herself and explore her creative talents was something Janet had not been allowed to do in the past, and it was like building a new muscle. As the project went along, she became more confident and open. The process of creating Control also made 19-year-old Janet — who was already aware she’d been sheltered — realize just how limited her experiences were. Jam and Lewis’ language and humor (Janet wasn’t used to frequent cursing) almost made her want to retreat back to Encino and Mama Katherine’s arms, but she started to realize she was trippin’ a little. “They were being real. The problem was with my perception, not with (them),” she said years later. “I was this little prude, I was uptight. I knew I wanted control…but I soon saw that I’d have to give in order to get: give myself over to a creative environment that was different and even a little dangerous from anything I’d ever known.”

The now infamous intro, “This is a story about control, my control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time, I’m gonna do it my way,” wasn’t just an album theme. It was a declaration about the rest of Janet’s career, although we didn’t realize it at the time. Just in case there was anyone who didn’t realize the song was completely autobiographical, she drove the point home in the video (with a genius nod to her Good Times days).

Control is a coming-of-age story set to music, covering everything from the excitement of young, new love…

...to the frustration of ain’t sh*t partners and folks who try to test you.

Oh, and choreography that had kids everywhere bustin’ up their mama’s kitchen chairs…and their behinds.

The album was bold, anthemic, and all Janet (with the assist from Jam and Lewis). Once she finally had perspective, she never let anyone take over her direction or decisions again. Over the years, she’s fiercely denied the involvement of any Svengali figures in her life. John McClain acted in some management capacity, but later insisted he never formally held the title, and many assumed ex-husband Rene Elizondo had taken on the role starting with Rhythm Nation, which Jackson repeatedly said was false. She was essentially managing herself with the help of trusted advisors, involved in every single aspect of recording, creative, visuals and performance. She once broke it down very succinctly, “Nothing happens without my approval.” (It all sounds very similar to another R&B-turned-Pop star after she severed professional ties with her father.)

Control introduced the world to the real Janet. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 was when she came for domination. Although Control broke sales records, spawned hit singles and was certified multi-platinum, the industry wasn’t sure whether Janet could do it again. She not only replicated the success, but topped it.

Control was an R&B album, on purpose. Jam has said they were “going for the black album of all time.” Just as intentionally, Rhythm Nation was broader, incorporating pop, rock and hip-hop (Jam and Lewis were bricklayers of the sonic foundations for new jack swing). The tone was set via a manifesto at the beginning of the album. A “pledge” for members of this new nation Janet was leading into the ‘90s:

We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines

The concept album was Janet’s foray into social consciousness (Ritz called it her What’s Going On, the politically-charged opus by Marvin Gaye). It also highlighted her incredible versatility, garnering award nominations and wins across genres, including a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nod for “Black Cat.” She may have come in the door through R&B, but she wasn’t going to be confined to a lane, and she continued to prove it. Janet is the only artist to have Grammy nominations in the Pop, Rock, Dance, R&B and Rap categories and to have No. 1 hits on every format — except Country.

While Janet did work to separate herself professionally from her brother, he was still not only her most trusted advisor through much of her career, but her benchmark for success. The two were the closest of the Jackson siblings, and a healthy career rivalry went along with that. “I’d love to break any of (Michael’s) records,” Janet exclaimed at the beginning of the Rhythm Nation cycle. “That would be great for me.” And she did. Rhythm Nation was the first album ever to generate No. 1 singles across three separate years (89, 90 and 91), and all seven singles cracked the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, breaking big brother’s record of seven Top 10 Hot 100 singles with Thriller.

Through Control and Rhythm Nation, Janet had proven her talent and star power. However, she was still mysterious and private in the way we’d all come to expect from the Jackson family. She also still had an air of appropriateness — the wholesome good girl. And then…janet. Control was where Janet found herself, Rhythm Nation was where she became a star and a cultural leader, janet. was where she became a grown-ass woman; the actualization of the Janet we know now.

By 1993, the Jackson family drama was increasingly in the public eye. Michael was still a couple of years away from child abuse allegations, trial, and “Wacko Jacko,” but his eccentricity had long been fodder for public conversation. The Jacksons: An American Dream miniseries had aired with high ratings the year prior. LaToya’s ’91 tell-all, although full of unsupported allegations, had given insight to Joe’s dysfunctional dynamics with his children. Janet mostly stayed out of the fray and made a declarative break from her family with this album by putting an actual period at the end of her first name in the title.

More shocking, though, was her physical declaration. We’d never seen more than a sliver of belly from the body-conscious Janet prior to the final video of the Rhythm Nation cycle, Herb Ritts’ stunning “Love Will Never Do” video, which was basically “New Janet, who ‘dis?” in visual form.

But that video ain’t have nothin’ on Janet’s Rolling Stone cover. Forget breaking the internet, it broke real life.

Sexuality is such a part of Janet’s identity as an artist now, it’s hard to remember how jaw-dropping this was back then.

Hits about voyeurism…

Jams about insatiability and sex in public…

Dance breaks while telling dude, “You know you want it, come and get it…”

...all from little Penny? Cue the pearl clutch! But all around, she was more open, accessible and real to us than she’d ever seemed. She did more press, she revealed her personality, she was chillin’ with her girls (her dancers, who she lovingly called “the kids”). She seemed fun.

The janet. era is the culmination of Janet’s cycle of growth, and it reveals the most marked difference between Jackson and her brother in their artistry, as well as the key to her self-possessed stardom. Michael obsessed over being the biggest star possible. He set out to do things that had never been done before. He wanted to amaze and astound. He wanted to f**k everybody’s head up. Janet, on the other hand, was focused on being an increasingly more genuine artist. In one of her many interviews with David Ritz over her career, she shared that she wasn’t focused on becoming a bigger star, “but a better artist, deeper, truer to the things I find exciting. If right now, I find sex exciting…I put that in my art. If next year, I’m depressed or confused or angry, I hope to have the courage to express those feelings. I hope to be an honest artist — no more, no less.” For all of Michael’s perfection, one didn’t always (or maybe even often) get the feel that he was being an “honest artist.” He was preoccupied with the reception of his work in a way Janet doesn’t seem to be. Over the years, her moves have always felt more genuine to her artistry, more about speaking to her fans, than measured against what’s currently poppin’. Her public quiet reserve has felt more like confidence than timidity. As though after the long journey to finding her artistic voice, her priority has been to stay true to that, at whatever cost. For example, in the wake of the Super Bowl scandal, Janet apologized, but she didn’t grovel or embark on a full apology tour just to get back in anyone’s good graces, though it hurt her — massively — in the prime of her career. Yet she’s not faltered or changed; she knows it wasn’t a measure of her talent. It’s easy to imagine that even now, had the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbed her again, she would have been like “I’m good, luv. Enjoy.”

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Tragedy Khadafi Talks New Music, Juice Crew Memories, And Evolving With The Times

When speaking on the lineage of hip hop, Queensbridge is integral to the conversation, as the public housing complex is regarded as fertile ground and the home of some of the greatest MCs in rap history. While Nas, Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga and others are among the first to come to mind when looking back at QB's most renowned exports, Tragedy Khadafi can be credited with helping bridge the gap between the neighborhood's legendary run during the late '80s and its golden era of the '90s.

At a time when rap had yet to fully find its footing, Tragedy Khadafi displayed lyrical abilities and techniques that were beyond his years as one-half of the Queensbridge rap duo, the Super Kids. Tragedy was scooped up by Marley Marl, who inducted the teenage into his Juice Crew collective. However, Tragedy, who was notorious for his exploits in the street, would be incarcerated during the late '80s, returning the to game as Intelligent Hoodlum and releasing a pair of albums during the early '90s. Since settling on the name Tragedy Khadafi around 1995, the rapper has not only made a name for himself, but others, helping usher C-N-N to the forefront of New York City hip-hop and serving as a conduit between Queensbridge's plethora of poetical thugs and the rap game.

In 2018, Tragedy Khadafi was as prolific as ever, releasing the solo album The Builders this past September, as well as Immortal Titans, his collaborative project with producer BP. A seasoned vet with the willingness to adapt to an ever-evolving rap landscape, Tragedy Khadafi is preparing for the next phase of his career, expanding his brand with a new podcast, and a pair of new releases slated for 2019.”We're working on a Drive-By's album for the podcast, “Tragedy reveals. And I'm working on a new solo album, Uniform Garments.”

Tragedy Khadafi hopped on the phone with VIBE to chop it up about his new music, lawsuits against iconic rap figures, being the prototypical Queensbridge MC, memories of the Juice Crew, making the plunge into the world of media, and more.

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VIBE: You recently released your solo album, The Builders, this past September. How has the reception been to that project? Tragedy Khadafi: I got a lot of good responses on the project and honestly, I kinda did that real quick. I didn't even really concentrate. I don't wanna take away from it, but that was nothing in comparison to what I'm doing right now.

What would you say was your goal or mind-state with while recording this album? I was looking at the climate and I was looking at the terrain and I wanted to make an album I wanted to hear. And I wanted to give my fans and supporters something that I know that they look to.

One song on the tracklist that jumps out at listeners is "Stacked Aces," which features a guest appearance from Havoc of Mobb Deep. What was it like working with him again, with the QB connection and your history with one another? It's always interesting when me and Hav’ hook up ‘cause we're like brothers, we’re like family. We got our ups and we got our downs and we go through different things, but we always seem to keep a line to each other, so it was interesting to get back with him because I hadn't seen him in a while. It just always works well when we come together.

How did that song come together? Well actually, I had reached out to him because I wanted to try to get him another situation. What a lot of people don't realize is I brokered the deal and A&R'd Havoc's first solo album with Nature Sounds, which is The Kush. And the plight was for Hav to be given that decorated honor as the East Coast Dr. Dre, so we wanted to make that album Havoc's Chronic, so we called it The Kush. So I wanted to reach out to him again and create another situation. It didn't exactly turn out that way, but we ended up exchanging some tracks, going back and forth, and I actually liked that one a lot. And he was just like, 'aight, go 'head, rock with it' and we took it from there.

You collaborated with producer BP on the album Immortal Titans this year as well. What's the genesis of your relationship with BP and what sparked the two of you to team up for this project? Well with BP, it was interesting. He initially reached out through me through a business associate and manager who actually runs Deep Concept and works very close with Erick Sermon. He reached out to me through the manager for a feature and I told him, 'look, I'm not into doing features no more, I’m into doing whole projects. So he was like, 'word,' so he actually came up with some more beats and we worked out the situation where I would record more songs for the project and it went together well. His production was very high quality and it seemed to be a marriage with my lyrics, so it wasn't hard work, it was all natural. I actually did the whole album in seven days.

The whole writing and the recording, too? Everything, yeah.

You recently filed a lawsuit against Master P. What was the genesis of the lawsuit? My attorney is helping me put in a lawsuit, which we got back a response from Master P's attorneys. We're basically suing him for copyright infringement and things of that nature due to the fact that he took the title and concept "Intelligent Hoodlum" and actually dropped an album called Intelligent Hoodlum (in 2017). It went over a lot of people's heads because I guess people concentrate more so on his other ventures. But he came out with an album and it came across my attention so I approached him on Instagram and tried to open a forum to have a courtesy talk, opposed to just suing him. Then I waited seven months and he left me no choice but to go at him legally, at that point.

What’s the status of the lawsuit, at this moment? We just got response back from the label and they're basically admitting fault, to my knowledge. We're also suing Ice Cube for doing a similar act by coming out with a song, "Arrest The President," and not acknowledging who the originator of that is, which is me. So we're suing him, too, right now.

In a recent interview, Marley Marl said that he feels the style of rap coming out of Queensbridge during the '90s can be traced back to your song "Live Motivator" from Marley Marl's In Control compilation. Would you agree with that statement? Yeah, I would definitely agree. And that's not to take nothing away from Nas or anybody else who came after me out of The Bridge, but truth is truth. You definitely see that there, that was pretty much the archetype and I just think they took it and modernized and made it their own, as they should.

You were also the youngest member of The Juice Crew, which was the hottest rap collective in New York during the '80s. What was it like being around superstars like Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane and how would you describe your interactions with them? The best way I can explain it was like a young Kobe [Bryant] being under Magic Johnson and Earl The Pearl and Wilt Chamberlain and have them as standards to hold yourself to, but actually in your life, you're having interactions with him them. Because I’m sure those players were a standard to Kobe at some point in his life, with Jordan or whatever, but the difference is that I actually had Jordan in the room with me, you know what I'm saying. Having Kane, having Rakim and having Shan—and Marley, to be honest. That was like having Jordan in the room with you. It wasn't me watching Jordan on TV or watching videos, it was me being on the court with Jordan. So to equate that feeling or try to imagine that as a kid out of the projects, off the streets and now you're amongst rap's elite. It had nothing but a great and positive impact on me, the whole way, even to this day.

A lot of rap fans are aware of your solo career, but are unaware that you got your start in rap as part of a duo called The Superkids as a pre-teen. What are your memories of that group coming together and being one of the first kid rappers with street credibility? It was all organic. It was fresh off the streets, it was born the streets it took form in the streets and it grew off the streets. It came by way of a relationship I had with a DJ named Larry Panic. Larry Panic was an ill graffiti artist, DJ and street fighter and he introduced me to Hot Day and me and Hot Day formed the group the Super Kids. We was trying to get on for a long time and it wasn't happening fast enough, so we kinda put ourselves on. We went and pressed our own records up, at that age, we went and made our own mixtapes. And I followed the same template when I got with C-N-N because it was like nobody wanted to put us on the mixtapes at first, so I was like, 'f**k it, let's make our own mixtape.' So I got that from being a Super Kid.

I believe I had just turned 13 and that's when it started. Hot Day was a DJ at a local skating rink called USA, located in Queens, and I would go there and perform. We actually did our first record, it was called "Go Queensbridge / Live At Hip Hop USA,” and we rocked there and actually took the tapes and pressed it and made a record out of it. And we actually used "Take It Off" by Spoonie Gee. It was on Tuff City Records and when we brought it to radio it got more spins than the original record.

After your release from prison, you reintroduced yourself as Intelligent Hoodlum, which saw you being to rap more about enlightenment and knowledge of self. How would you describe that period of your life and career? Initially, when I came home, I can hold Big Daddy Kane responsible. Big Daddy Kane was one of the first people to introduce me to knowledge of self and at first I was like, 'man, I don't wanna hear that sh*t.' And it was an incident where he got into a situation with one of G Rap's entourage. The way he handled it I was like, 'son, this dude is tough.' Not only is he nice on the mic, but he's tough, too. So once that happened, it made me—in a sick way, at that time 'cause I was on my street sh*t—respect what he was saying in terms of knowledge of self and that was my first introduction to it. And I had just came from and I started going through Marley's phone books looking for certain people to talk to and I came across Chuck D's number. Chuck D would talk to me before he even knew me and put me on to certain literature and certain books about certain icons in the revolution, like Huey Newton, H Rap Brown and Assata Shakur. And I started getting interested in it because where I came [from], I was under the ignorance that black people was only hustlers, shooters and killers. And from there it just kinda took off and I took on the moniker Intelligent Hoodlum, which I got from Malcolm X's book after I read his autobiography by Alex Haley. And there's a chapter called "Hoodlum" and I put "Intelligent" in front of it 'cause I saw myself moving in a more different direction and being a better me. And I kept the "Hoodlum" 'cause I was like, 'I'm never gonna forget where I came from, but I know where I'm going now.

One of the more underrated aspects of your career is your track record of helping break new talent, particularly acts like Capone-N-Noreaga. What made you take such an active interest in the careers of others while in the midst of your own? I saw a lot of talent in those brothers you mentioned and one thing I learned from Marley is how to cultivate talent and bring out the best in people. You know, like when Marley got with LL, it brought out a better LL. Of course it had to exist in LL, but it took Marley to see it and be able to help him direct it and channel it in the right way and that's what I see. I consider myself like the Cus D'Amato; Cus D'Amato brought out the best in Tyson and he understood Tyson. I love hip-hop so much that I understand the MC. I understand, not only his rhyming ability, but I understand his plight and I understand his origin. I'm able to see that in a person the minute I meet them, so it's only natural that I help bring that out in other artists. And like I said, I love hip-hop and I never wanted the MC to die. No matter who it comes through or what form it comes through or what vessel it encompasses, I always want the MC to be alive.

When those relationships didn't always remain amicable, did that ever leave you bitter or disillusioned from collaborating or working with artists in any way? That's one of the best questions anybody's asked me, straight up and down, 'cause it's true, and it had for a long time because there's a gift and a curse in loving the culture so much. You can't help but become emotionally attached and it's still a factor that it's a business. I was able to cultivate the talent, put myself in it, but I had to learn more to balance in terms of the business aspect and keeping things on a certain level business-wise and keeping certain boundaries business-wise. Now I'm at a place and space within my mind and in my mindframe that I have now, I'm able to do that, but it had to come with maturity. Did it leave me bitter at first? Of course it did, I'm not gonna lie and say it didn't. But like I said, it took time for me to grow and get past it and not hold it against individuals because ultimately it's on you when you have certain expectations of people. People are always gonna be the human nature of people, so you gotta learn to work through that and it took me time to realize that and kinda conquer it within myself. And that's why I feel great about where I'm at now mentally, because I'm able to become emotionally attached to a project or to an artist, but yet still keep that boundary of business with respect to myself and the value I bring to it.

Do you feel your street cred or rep hindered your career? At times I did, but I realized of course I want more, who doesn't? Jay-Z wants more, Rick Ross wants more. LeBron James wants more, Nas wants more and these are some of the upper echelons in the game. And at first, I felt that way, but I'm exactly where I need to be at this moment in my life and I'm not gonna have any regrets cause all that's gonna do is stifle my growth. I just feel like I am what I am and who I am and to some its means a lot, to some it may not, but to me, it means everything. And that's what's more important.

With 30 years deep in the game, what would you say are your biggest milestones and lessons learned? The parting of C-N-N taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about people, human nature and myself. The passing of my mother, the passing of Big and Pac, and I can honestly say when my son fell out the window and almost died, those are like the biggest milestones of my life.

In addition to staying active on the music front, you've also jumped into the world of media with your new podcast, DBWCC. What does that acronym stand for, and what sparked your interest in starting a podcast? It was initially my brother's creation. It's funny because when I went to do the Lessons album with N.O.R.E.—and this is us getting back together after the wars, after “Blood Type,” after "Halfway Thugs," the back and forth, the rumors, the blatant attacks on each other—we finally got back together and developed some form of relationship. And I drove from New York to Miami with my sister and my brother Chris Castro and that's what DBWCC stands for, Drive-Bys With Chris Castro. So we all drive out to Miami and while I'm out there recording with N.O.R.E.— we did the album in like two days—my brother is telling me that I should create a podcast. And this probably like year or two before Drink Champs and my brother is like, 'the new thing is podcasts;' he told me and N.O.R.E this and we kinda brushed it off.

Later on, N.O.R.E. obviously got into it, but he put this seed in my mind then because he's always been immersed in the now culture of hip-hop, as well as the true era of hip-hop. I looked around at the world I'm in and looked at the marketing and said, 'you know what, this makes sense because people aren't buying records anymore, they're buying experiences. They're buying cultures and they're buying brands,' so we came together on this. And I executive produce it and I'm a co-host on the show and we kinda wanted to take it in a different direction from a "Tragedy" thing 'cause like you said, I have so many titles and labels attached to the artist that we wanted to give DBWCC its own start, its own lane, so to speak.

Away not from Tragedy, per se, but to give people another side of me because people are so used to me being serious on tracks that they don't realize that I have a humor side, that I'm a funny motherf**ker. This particular forum allows me to be that person I am, that other character my family knows me for, but my fans and supporters in the world doesn't necessarily see that from me because I'm always coming at issues. But with this show, I'm just able to be more comfortable more to speak. Not to say I'm not comfortable with my music cause I am, it's just a different side of me and I'm not gonna lie, I love it. It's growing. I'm getting a lot of good feedback and we want our show to be an organic show. We don't want the regular bio-link interview, so that's why we get you in the car, we get you in the seat and we come at you from an organic way, an authentic way. It's more so conversation, opposed to an "interview."

With Noreaga, Fat Joe, Joe Budden and other veteran artists expanding their brand in various ways, do you feel the shelf life for a rapper to be relevant in hip-hop is longer than ever before? I feel like we live in a different time and KRS-One said something some time back that I'm seeing come to fruition. He said, 'we're off the plantation now, but ni**as don't realize we free.' This technology, it levels the playing field; you don't necessarily need a label, and it allows you to be more direct with your fans. Your fans want to grow with you, they want to walk with you, they want to see into your life. And sound is one thing, but visual helps bring it all together and through this particular forum, it helps to do that. Now your music or your records are more or less like commercials, they're not the pillars of your career or the pillars of your climb, not they're more like commercials that should segue into your visual, into your medium forums. That's what they should be and that's what I see them as.

What would you say is the next step or level for Tragedy Khadafi, musically or otherwise? The next step, otherwise, is I wanna come out with a series of books as opposed to just looking at hip-hop as music and I wanna touch on these certain things that we're talking about. l wanna touch on media, I wanna touch on diversity. I wanna touch on overall growth and building social value and allowing to create wealth for artists; that's something I'm very adamant about and that's something that I'm very proactive in doing. Musically, I'm just gonna keep making the music I make and giving the fans what they want from me, what they need from me, and that's where I'm gonna keep growing and evolving into. But more so concentrating on my social platforms, in terms of marketing and branding and really just creating more wealth around my brand and within my brand.

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Ed Buck And The Black Queer Lives That Don't Matter

The saying goes “history often repeats itself” but for those who are black and Queer, that history is often violent and unprotected.

A déjà vu moment for the LGBTQ community happened last week when reports surfaced of another black gay man dying in the home of wealthy Democratic donor Ed Buck. New and disturbingly fresh to some, the story isn’t only stranger than fiction but proves gay black men are fetishized in plain sight.

Let’s back up a bit. On July 27, 2017, police were called to the home of Buck in West Hollywood, Calif., where the body of 26-year-old Gemmel Moore was found unresponsive. The Los Angeles coroner's office would initially rule Gemmel’s death an overdose of crystal methamphetamine—a growing problem within the LGBTQ community. However, there was an immediate outcry from the black queer community, as the narrative between Moore and Buck raised more questions than answers.

Today would've been Gemmel's 28h birthday. Instead of celebrations and Instagram posts from friends, Gemmel's legacy in the public sphere is that of a sex worker—a stirring attempt to discredit his worth while subtly blaming the victim for his own death. We have seen this occur many times when discussing the LGBTQ sex worker community. Transgender women are also painted as such in stories to devalue their worth. Far too often, sex workers endure victim blaming and shaming. A societal standard that contributes to the notion that sex workers are partly liable in their own deaths because of “risk” involved with the industry, intersected with mainstream views about sex work, not fitting standards or respectability.

Questions began to arise about why Buck, a 65-year-old white man, and social-political butterfly to Democratic party members like Hillary Clinton would have someone 39 years his junior in his home doing drugs. As more reporting by activist and journalist Jasmyne Cannick and others continued, a tale of privilege, wealth, and sexual exploitation became the new narrative of story many simply tried to bury.

Reports were coming out from other young black queer men who had dealings with Buck, many of them detailing his drugging of them with meth by needle—a technique called “pointing.” Entries from Gemmel's journal were also published by Cannick, revealing just how much pain and madness he was subjected to, including Buck, reportedly getting the 26-year-old hooked on drugs for sexual pleasure.

It is not easy to live at the intersection of being Black and Queer. It’s a double marginalization where we often find ourselves devoid of allies. On one side we have our own community which like all others, deals with homophobia. That homophobia often times bleeds into social justice work around black queer people. People who feel race should come first and be the only concern.

Black queer people are often fighting for others who would never fight for them. We have been conditioned by white supremacy to fall prey to respectability politics that makes us see anything other than cishet as an attack against our own community.

Despite the painful evidence, media began doing what it does with most black victims—painting them as the deviant and the abuser as the one being victimized. Gemmel was painted as a drug-addicted sex worker, an attempt at dehumanizing his value.

The views of sex work in the United States intersected with Gemmel being from a marginalized community was a tactic that saw many blaming the victim, rather than the manipulative predatory Buck, who was being protected by his wealth, whiteness, and proximity to those in power.

Following the LA coroner’s report, social media outrage eventually forced the LA Sheriff’s department to give the full investigation into the matter that it deserved. Unfortunately, after several months of getting statements and going over the evidence, the LA prosecutor's office refused to indict Buck, leaving the family and black LGBTQ community feeling hopeless that Gemmel would ever get justice.

However, last week news broke that a second black gay man by the name of Timothy Dean was found dead in the home of ...Ed Buck. This time around, media coverage was immediate as multiple major outlets covered the story about the 55-year-old victim, a significant change from the first death. With circumstances surrounding the incident much like the first time, the story was hard to ignore with national coverage happening almost immediately. Responders arrived at Buck's home to find Dean unresponsive by an apparent overdose.

Immediately, Buck’s lawyers issued a statement removing him of all culpability and once again blaming the victim for his own death. “From what I know, it was an old friend who died of an accidental overdose, and unfortunately, we believe that the substance was ingested at some place other than the apartment,” said Seymour Amster, Buck’s attorney. “The person came over intoxicated.”

With this being the second occurrence of death at his home, investigators were more eager to look into the situation—as was the media who showed up to the home of Buck that evening looking for comment. What most were greeted by was outraged citizens, many of whom were from the black queer community that has remained steadfast since last year.

Dozens of activists and community members protested in front of the home of Buck following the second death. During the rally, several citizens spoke out including Cannick. She challenged several city council members who showed up to the rally about how disengaged and harmful they had been the first time this happened, and how their support now was questionable at best. This is an important sentiment in the story because much of Buck’s protection came in the form of those he donated too, on both a micro and macro level.

When the first death occurred in his home in 2017, politicians refused to release statements about the situation. There were some rumblings from GOP members, but only because he was a donor to the Democratic Party, not because of who the victim was—partly why the buzz died down as media coverage went away.

For his political allies, there was too much at stake. With President Donald Trump creating more turmoil between the major political parties and the #MeToo movement surrounding the behaviors targeting those in Hollywood, there seemed to be limited space to care for black life–an aspect we’re used to these days.

On a micro level, these same city council members who accepted funds from Buck in the past were silent in the first death. Not wanting to ruffle feathers with the wealthy donor, choosing allegiance to secure funding over the life of Gemmel Moore. But now, the political climate has changed. In November of 2018, the Democratic Party took back the House of Representatives, all about removing any shielding Buck may have from the party. Once word broke of a second death, those who were silent are now issuing statements and sending money back that was donated by Buck.

Black lives, in general, are not protected in media nor community. White people are more concerned about preserving power and privilege then every affording us equity and justice. This sentiment bleeds into the white queer community, which has also helped to oppress black queer people.

Most recently, comedian Ellen DeGeneres spoke up on behalf of a community she did not belong to offer forgiveness to Kevin Hart for his comments about the gay community. However, when it is someone from her own community causing harm to black queer people, (ie: Buck) she like many other white queer people are nowhere to be found. It only adds to people who love to partake in our culture while turning a blind eye or aiding in our oppression.

This is a challenge to all communities witnessing the atrocities that black queer people are facing in this country. Your silence has become complicity in our death. It should not have taken for a second dead body to be found at the home of Ed Buck for people to join in solidarity with us. We have experienced this type of violence against our community for far too long with no justice in our plight.

Ed Buck is using his wealth, class, and power to manipulate black queer men who are vulnerable. Men who are sex workers or struggling to make a livable wage to sustain their own existence. Men who are already caught up in the meth epidemic and fall prey to sexual exploitation in return from drugs. How many more lives must be lost before a stop is put to this?

In the coming days, it will be more important than ever that media coverage does not let up and continues to press the LA Sheriff’s Office to not commit the same mistake twice. If black lives truly matter, then we must be more vocal and fervent in our fight when they fall among the most marginalized. This is a continuing story, one that we will not only cover but see through till the end—an end that looks like justice for Gemmel Moore, Timothy Dean, and the black queer lives that continue to go unprotected.

George M Johnson is a journalist and activist living in Brooklyn NY with features in over 40 publications including Vibe, Essence, VICE, and Buzzfeed. His debut YA memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is scheduled to be released January 2020 through FSG.

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Cormega Talks ‘MEGA’ EP, Working With StreetRunner And Cultivating His Legal Hustle

Time waits for no man–particularly in music, where the constant onslaught of music makes it easy for an artist to fall through the cracks and into obscurity. But if you're an MC that possesses the level of talent as Cormega, odds are that you'll always have an audience. Four years removed from his last full-length release, Mega Philosophy, the Queens lyricist returns with MEGA, a quick-strike EP that looks to add to his legacy. Produced entirely by StreetRunner, MEGA captures Cormega doing what he does best: tugging on the heartstrings with stories of love lost and the harsh realities of navigating the concrete jungle. Known for eulogizing many of his close friends and associates through song, Cormega continues this trend with his latest work, finding the inspiration for the album's artwork while coping with tragedy.

"The album cover is jade green because it's a tribute to my friend, Jade, who passed away last month," Cormega explains via phone. "She was 29 years old. Beautiful woman, inside and out. She died and it touched me so bad and I wanted to tribute her in some kind of way. I couldn't make a song ‘cause it was done and I ain't know what to do, so I just colored the album after her name. It was just simple, to the point and beautiful."

Comprised of five songs and with Havoc as the sole guest appearance on"Live Your Best Life," MEGA puts the focus on Cormega, who delivers another quality body of work that proves why he's one of rap's most earnest street poets. And on Saturday, January 26, fans will be able to celebrate the new album with a listening and Q&A event at The VNYL in New York City. VIBE hopped on the phone with Cormega to discuss MEGA, connecting with StreetRunner, the status of his forthcoming sequel to his Legal Hustle album and why unveiling this project was his biggest challenge to date.

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VIBE: Over the past decade, you've taken your time releasing new material. Your last project, Mega Philosophy, was released over four years ago. Has that been a conscious decision and what was the reason for the hiatus?

Cormega: Well to be honest with you, I wanted to come out with another project between 2015 or 2016 or 2017, but I was working with a producer whose work ethic is not consistent with mine, so I had to break free and make this EP with a producer that prioritized me. So that's how we got to this. If it was up to me, I would've had another project out in 2016. Usually when I take breaks, it has to do with family 'cause I'm raising my daughter a lot. My daughter lives with me so I'm the head of the household cause of my child so a lot of times, she prioritizes herself.

You've kept your name abuzz between album drops with guest spots on other artists records, including your song with Capone-N-Noreaga that dropped earlier this year.

Yeah, that's gonna be on Legal Hustle 2.

What's the story behind that collaboration?

I got history with them so it was just a matter of time before we did something and it made sense. I did something on one of their mixtapes a couple of years ago so they did something for me. It's the first time they was on a Cormega project, ever, so it was time.

One of your more recent collaborations is your song "Real Ones," which features London-based vocalist Autumn Sharif. How did that song come together and why wasn't it included on MEGA?

That's also gonna be on Legal Hustle 2, so you see what I'm doing. I'm constantly preparing people for something else that's coming very soon. I'm trying to pretty much do it like Marvel do it. You watch the Marvel movies and they give you a little glimpse of something and then a next movie come out and you're like, 'ah, okay.' So the C-N-N record will be on Legal Hustle 2, and the Autumn Sharif joint will be on Legal Hustle 2. Legal Hustle 2 is coming in 2019, so it's not gonna be no more long breaks.

This project is totally produced by StreetRunner. The "Real Ones" joint was produced by a brother named Kuya Beats, and the C-N-N record, that was also produced by StreetRunner, but I didn't wanna put it on there, that was a conscious decision. I didn't wanna put it on there because it's only an EP and it's already a feature on there, so how can I respect myself for making a cohesive project that only has five songs on it, but two of them are features? That's like the easy way out. Your fans can't relate to you. If you're putting a bunch of features on your song, they might be buying your music for other reasons. I don't depend on features for the creative aspect of my music. The features is just the additional spice, but it's not the meal.

You’ve pursued a few projects outside of music, such as your book, Understanding The True Meaning, which you released in celebration of the album's 15th anniversary. What spurred you to even think of writing a book, let alone one for that particular album?

Because it was a 15th anniversary and I just wanted to celebrate it. You gotta understand that True Meaning album really changed the landscape of the independent game. That’s the first independent album that ever got a Source Award. I was an honoree at the Underground Music Awards. They gave me an Impact Award during the time of that, so that album really put me on the map and it's arguably one of our greatest albums, from the fan's perspective, so I wanted to do that. I'm gonna do books for probably all of the albums 'cause the way that we broke that album down, it was so nice and it gained so much approval from the public that I decided I'd do that with another project. Being that this one is new and that it's fresh, I might do it with this one 'cause this EP has a story.

When you announced your plans to release your new EP MEGA on Instagram, you referred to it being the biggest challenge of your career. How so?

There's no other East Coast artist putting out an album right now (during the holiday season), his label won't allow it. Only like Migos and big big acts. My album’s not even pressed yet so people gotta stand on line and they're not even gonna get it, they're gonna patiently wait for it, they're gonna get it like three weeks later or something like that. My CDs didn't even come in yet, when I left America, they wasn't there yet. … When I put out the song "Real Ones," it was a test to people, but they loved it and it's now it's the second most popular record on Spotify, which is strange cause all of the other records have been out for a while and that just record just came out so it's doing well, also. It's no label behind this either, there's no subsidiary. Usually Landspeed is helping, so they'll fund stuff. Like they'll cut checks to people that's part of the team or they'll give me an advance. There was no advance for this album, this is all me. This is the biggest challenge I've ever had. And I look forward to the challenge because I believe in my fans.

The entire EP is produced by Streetrunner, who has produced radio hits for a slew of rap stars. How did the two of you connect?

Well, first of all, let me pay homage and tribute to StreetRunner right now. He might be one of the most down-to-earth, notable producers in the game, period, because like you said, he works with mainstream artists. He had the most talked-about record in the country a week and a half ago. He did that song "What’s Free" for Meek Mill featuring Rick Ross and Jay-Z. He did a song that has Chris Brown on it recently, he just got a plaque from [DJ] Khaled. He did stuff for Royce [Da 5’9”], he's working with Yo Gotti, he's working with big artists and he still found the time to finish something with me. That speaks volumes about him. There's other people that work with other artists and then they'll have you waiting. That's how this project even came to fruition ‘cause somebody else had me waiting and I was like f**k that. So the fact that StreetRunner did that is amazing, I'm really really respectful for that. I met him through Premium Pete, I gotta give him that credit. We was at a producer event and he was like, 'yo, Mega, I want you to meet some of these producers.' He didn't have to do that. There was other people that was there that was in the industry that could've said that or did, but they didn't, Premium Pete did it. So it was StreetRunner and I was like, 'ah,' and we finally met cause I knew that he had wanted to work with me for a while. A few people had told me that, but we never linked, so once we met, we exchanged numbers and we just got cool ever since then. His girl is an aspiring artist, too. I admire and respect her and I promised her I would do something for her. I went out there and I did it, so we just got cool over the years and it's just a mutual respect thing. The music is gonna speak to our chemistry.

On "Live Your Best Life," you trade verses with Havoc, one of your longtime friends and collaborators. How did that song come to life and how would you describe your creative process when working with Hav?

Me and Havoc don't work as much as we should, but we work a lot. There's unreleased Cormega and Hav stuff; we're in the process of figuring out if we're gonna do a project, but that was one of the joints I had in the stash. And if Prodigy was alive, he would've been on it. Me and Havoc did the song and it wasn't necessarily for this, but I wanted it to be on there because the way I see it, Havoc's been quiet for a while. Nobody really heard much from him since Prodigy passed. The way I see it, if you're making new music and your friend is making music and he's quiet and you're about to do something, I think that's how you keep your friends' names floating. Other artists do that, so I wanted Havoc to be on there because out of all of the artists I deal with, he's one of the closest artists that I've worked with and that's always been there consistently for me.

The album has a cohesive sound, with each track seamlessly blending into the one after. Was that a conscious effort on your part or would you credit that more to StreetRunner's involvement in the process?

This is the most cohesive album or project I've ever done. I think it's 25 percent StreetRunner and 75 percent me, as far as the cohesiveness. I think it's 100 percent StreetRunner when it comes to the production, but I pick the beats, he gives me options and I know what to choose. The first song, "Say No More," and the last song, "Empty Promises," the beat is pretty much twins, it's just one has more to it. I did that on purpose ‘cause I wanted it like The Testament. The Testament started and ended with the same beat, it's just the ending was a song. It was "Love is Love," but how it started, it was like a poem. So I went and did the beginning and end like a story, like The Testament did. That's why we have the same beat, but just adjust it for the beginning or end. This album is conceptual in a way, like this is vibe music. It was both of us, but I definitely wanted it to be more cohesive than anything I've ever done. This is the only album or project I've ever done that I've said is beautiful. I heard other stuff and I'd be like this is hard, I like this, this is dope, but this project is beautiful.

This project includes a lot of heartfelt and introspective material, which has been a signature of your music. How would you describe your mind-state while writing and recording this album?

My mind state was to separate myself from my peers. A lot of artists that came out from my generation, a lot of them is living off their old fame. Off their old status, off their old skill or repertoire. I don't wanna be one of them. I'm better than I used to be, in my opinion. I was more raw, I'm not more raw than I used to be, but far as an artist I think I'm scratching the surface on something different that I wanna do and I wanted to distance myself. When I was writing this, all I was thinking about for greatness, this is where I wanna be looked at as a great. I'm not rapping for a check. Some people get inspired when the check gets cut, I'm not that person. I want my music to be like art. I want this to be one of the greatest EPs ever. I made some great albums, but I want this to be one of the greatest EPs ever. When people talk about EPs, I want them to be like, 'we got ‘Mega joint,' you know what I'm saying? And I wanna make a double album. Those are my two challenges to myself. A double album, that's when you really define yourself because everybody can't make a double album. A lot of people have tried and failed, so that's what my challenge is.

What song from this album are you most excited for listeners to hear and why?

"On Everything." I really respect that song. I really was curious about that because I didn't know if I wanted to use it. It was an experimental song. The production is not like the production I'd typically rock on, so when I rapped to it, it was a challenge and I was like, 'I hope I didn't mess up.' Then when people heard it and when they started naming their favorites, that song was one of the favorites or the favorite of a lot of people. I became proud of that. So I think that song and the song with Havoc are probably my favorites.

You said you have Legal Hustle 2 coming next year. How far along would you say you are in the recording process?

It's not all done, but I've secured a lot of features already. Not by word, but I actually have vocals to a lot of features. So that's good because rappers are full of sh*t. They'll say they'll do it, but you might not get the verse. So I have a lot verses already and I'm just gonna go in the studio probably next month sometime, put everything on one file and just really study it and see where I wanna go with. But so far, my goal is to make it better than the first one and the first one was pretty good. I like where I'm at with it right now, though. We'll have it next year, maybe around late summer.

With 2019 upon us, what can fans expect or look out for from you this year, musically or otherwise?

MEGA, MEGA, MEGA. All my energy is going into MEGA, ain't no more collaborations or nothing until next year, only thing we focused on right now is MEGA. I'ma text my friends, my fans, everybody 'attention attention, MEGA, MEGA. If I run into you with a phone, 'you got iTunes on your phone? Go to your iTunes right now.' I'ma make 'em buy my album right on the spot. For the people I did stuff for, the people that owe me money, buy my EP.

With 20 years in the game and being an underdog for much of your career, how does it feel to still be able to create a demand for your music and have listeners still tuning in?

Very humbling. Very, very, very humbling. Emotional. I was emotional the other day when I had the listening session in Brixton, England and I got a standing ovation. The feedback, it was like, 'wow.' A producer recently said the average rapper has a high school career. It's like you got four years, then you're out of here. For me to be here this long—but not just being here this long, because it's a lot of artists that's been around long—for me to be around this long and putting out music on this quality level to the listeners... ‘Cause this is not my opinion. If you listen to the listeners or you go to the Amazon Reviews when it come out, the opinions are the thing that inspire me. Like my last album, Mega Philosophy, I didn't know how it was gonna be received and it was like, 'wow.' People were overwhelmed by it. Artists like stunting on each other, they'll give you silent praise, but artists were vocally giving me props, like, 'Mega, the album is amazing,' or coming up to me. It was rappers I didn't even know listened to my music, like Talib Kweli. I knew we was cool, but I ain't know he checked out my music. He was like, 'yo, Mega Philosophy is nice!' He gave me my props for it. Chuck D. Like AZ. Me and AZ always been cool, but he never spoke on my music. AZ was like, 'I gotta be on there.' Havoc heard the project and he was like, 'that sh*t is super fire.' He was, like, very happy and very impressed and very honored to be on it. So I'm just humbled and very grateful to the fans. I'm very grateful.

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