Sandra Bland Say Her Name HBO
Kate Davis / Courtesy of HBO

Sandra Bland's Life & Death: The Making Of HBO's Haunting Documentary, 'Say Her Name'

The directors and Bland family share how the film came together and their hopes for those who watch.

The opening scene of HBO’s new documentary about Sandra Bland is so eerily prophetic; it feels almost as if she is speaking to us from the afterlife. Looking directly through the screen, during a video blog we soon find out was actually recorded roughly three months before her death, she addresses her “beautiful kings and queens,” as well as another particular group: white people. “We can’t help but get pissed off when we see situations where it’s clear that black life didn’t matter,” Bland says. “Because in the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.”

The tragic irony in her words is the subject of the film, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premiered on the cable network on Monday (Dec 3). Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner began following Bland’s family and lawyer just 10 days after her July 2015 death in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell, where the 28-year-old was found hanging from a noose made from a trash bag. The circumstances of her death, mysterious given a lack of video footage, falsified jail logs, and the family’s insistence that she would have not killed herself — as well as the unnecessary violence used by a state trooper in her arrest over a routine traffic stop — sparked national outcry and protests. Despite the overwhelming grief, Bland’s family felt compelled to participate in the film after a bit of convincing from Davis and Heilbroner, Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, tells VIBE.

“It had become clear to us that if we didn’t consistently speak and share our truth, then we ran the risk of somebody else telling our story for us,” Cooper says, adding that she feels the film shows “who Sandy was as a person” and doesn’t “shroud the entire film in her death.”

Bland’s video blogs, a series she dubbed “Sandy Speaks,” featured at various points throughout the film, are a crucial element of that view, according to the family and filmmakers. Bland is frequently seen speaking directly to the camera, just as in the beginning, discussing topics on racial injustices prevalent in society today. Heilbroner tells VIBE that this digital footprint, which Bland would post for her followers on Facebook, put him and Davis in a unique position when it came to structuring the documentary.

“It hit us as filmmakers to weave [Sandra] into the film as a narrator of her own story because the subject of those blogs spoke directly to the forces that brought her down,” he says. “It was extremely eerie... the film has a sort of ghostly presence of Sandra throughout. Once we got to know [the family] and got to know her, we became excited because she was such a compelling human being. She set the bar for us in terms of the message we wanted the film to deliver.”

Over the course of two years, Heilbroner and Davis tracked Bland’s case with acute detail, taking viewers behind the scenes of legal meetings, autopsy examinations and emotional moments within the Bland family home. Dashcam footage taken from the police vehicle of state trooper Brian Encinia shows a forceful confrontation between him and Bland when he pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change just outside of Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. Apparently unhappy with Bland’s refusal to put out her cigarette, Encinia is shown threatening to drag Bland out of the car and “light [her] up” with a Taser, prompting further protest from Bland. Video taken from a bystander then shows Bland on the ground in handcuffs with Encinia and another officer standing over her. “I can’t even f**kin’ feel my arm… You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that?” Bland is heard yelling in distress.

The film features interviews with Texas law enforcement officials, namely Waller County sheriff R. Glenn Smith and the county’s district attorney, Elton Mathis. State trooper Encinia, who was later fired from his post but cleared of a perjury charge, does not speak in the film himself. Davis says that while she and Heilbroner undoubtedly went in with “strong feelings” about the case, they felt it was important to present as unbiased of a view as possible. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the officials agreed to speak on camera.

“We said, look, this is your chance to tell your side,” Davis says. “We’re not out to skewer you, we’re going to give you a fair chance and let people choose for themselves.” It was also, she says, a chance for them to reflect on choices that were made leading up to Bland’s death. “To think for themselves about where their faults lie, where mistakes were made, why mistakes were made.” Sheriff Smith towards the end of the film admits that while he sees no fault in the legal proceedings of the jail staff, he “absolutely” believes authorities present failed when it came to the “moral responsibility” of checking in on Bland regularly, as required for solitary confinement inmates. “To a certain extent,” Davis says, “They were accounting for their behavior openly and honestly.”

“What they did do a very good job of,” Cooper says, “is showing how ineffective they were at doing their job. Showing there was an immense lack of accountability that they took at the time.” Though the family eventually settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million and a promise of jail reform and police de-escalation training under the Sandra Bland Act, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is filmed saying she doesn’t believe her daughter committed suicide despite a lengthy period of investigation. Asked more than three years after her sister’s death whether she believes Bland was murdered at the hands of law enforcement, Cooper says she simply does not know.

“I operate in finite terms. And I think that is something that’s elevated when you’re trying to land on the law of your loved one,” she says. “And when the things that you have been told are not in alignment with what has been presented before you, it leaves you in a state of uncertainty. And that’s where I’ve been, and that’s where we’ve been collectively as a family.”

What Cooper is sure of, however, is her sister’s role in expanding the conversation around police brutality victims to include black women and girls along with black men and boys who were covered more prominently by the media. In the wake of Bland’s death, the Say Her Name movement went viral, and many observers pointed out that it appeared to be the first time a black woman victim of police brutality garnered such attention from the mainstream press.

“It awakened the rage, it elevated it because black women have been pissed off on behalf of black men for quite some time, hence the Black Lives Matter movement being started by three black women,” Cooper says. “So at the end of the day, you have a woman who was unapologetic in what she believed, and in some shape or fashion or form was essentially cut down for that. You had sisters who were elevating their voices because there was a level of relatability between Sandra and the person who felt like it very well could’ve been them. They saw themselves in her.”

Asked whether they anticipated Bland’s story would become national news, Davis says that her and Heilbroner “were aware that Sandy was arguably the first female victim of police brutality who became highly recognized. There was a gender aspect that was interesting.”

With the film having premiered earlier this week, it’s Davis and Heilbroner’s hope that viewers will understand Bland’s vision for society, discussed throughout her Sandy Speaks clips. Additionally, Heilbroner says, “I’d like the film to stand for a kind of documentary that is not just a polemic thing and a one-sided account.

“I’d like to hope it stands for a film that makes you think and makes you think about yourself, and people think about their implicit biases and potential for racist reactions,” he adds. “If we could get people to look at themselves and have a more subtle discourse about race in this country, that would be amazing.”

As for the family, Cooper says they hope audiences will get a better picture of Bland “beyond the headlines” that were previously reported. “There is a need for people to unearth humanity,” she says, and that it’s important for black communities watching to see what happens to victims’ families after the initial trauma. “We don’t take a moment to step back and think about the cascading impact and the domino effect that that fatal encounter had on that person’s loved ones.”

“I know that it feels like we’re in a hopeless and dire situation in our country right now because of this polarizing environment that we’re in, but at some point, we have to find a way to bridge this chasm that continues to widen on the daily basis,” Cooper adds. “It’s our hope that this [film] will be the continuation of a conversation that truly needs to be had around the very real work that needs to be done from the criminal justice reform perspective.”

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20 Years Of TLC's 'FanMail': A Futurist Prelude To Digital Era Intimacy

TLC owned the year 1999. FanMail released on this day (Feb. 23), 20 years ago, and made the Atlanta R&B trio the best-selling female group in the United States. The flood of popular R&B acts that emerged during the early 1990s under the banner of New Jack Swing, hip hop soul, and silky slow jams, fizzled out.

Meanwhile, TLC seamlessly evolved as newcomers like Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child emerged on the Billboard charts. On the Grammy-winning Best R&B Album opus, TLC and longtime producer Dallas Austin brought back their radio-friendly hip-hop, R&B and pop anthems empowering women and underdogs, this time with a nod to the digital era.

FanMail, from the sound to the art direction, embodied a timely futuristic aesthetic, as everyone was obsessed with technology’s cultural takeover in the new millennium: remember Y2K hysteria, Napster mp3 file sharing, and the Dot.com boom? On the album's cover, T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye's faces appear as silver-faced avatars floating above an orbit. A code of numbers are printed across the cover, imagery often associated with The Matrix. (Although FanMail dropped a month before the film hit theaters.)

On the title track, listeners are greeted by Vic-E, the everpresent robotic voice narrating the album: “Just like you, they [TLC] get lonely, too." She reassures listeners that fame doesn't stop them from being human. The digitized voice is reminiscent of the “tour guide” on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders. Yet, unlike Tribe, TLC collaborates with the robot, as it contributes background vocals throughout. Austin also sprinkled FanMail with samples of sounds — check “Communicate (Interlude)” and “LoveSick” for examples — he found on the Internet, movies, and devices like printers, he shared with MixOnline.

It was a smart move to modernize, as it had been five years since TLC released its best-selling 1994 album CrazySexyCool. The sultry mix presented a more mature and stripped back follow-up to the colorful, youthful angst of Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip. This five-year gap could have left the group’s fans uninterested, especially if they were releasing in today's fast-paced consumption environment, in which stans demand new releases on social media after only a year or two. But the time away didn’t hinder TLC. Now 10 years in the game, they managed a successful return by dedicating this project to their fanbase.

“Left Eye came up with the title, and we made it come together creatively as a group, along with Dallas Austin,” T-Boz said in their May 1999 VIBE cover story. “It was like, Let’s write and sing one big fan letter. Let’s put fan names on everything – all the singles, the album cover, T-shirts, mugs. Just show our appreciation."

Left Eye also chimed in with a transparent business savvy explanation. “Now we know that the way contracts are set up, it’s not really made for artists to get rich from selling records – that’s the company’s one shot to make money,” she explained. “The artist is supposed to use that as an outlet to do merchandising and other things that we never took advantage of because we were too busy sitting in bankruptcy court trying to get a settlement out of LaFace.”

That part. Although TLC were multi-platinum selling artists up until FanMail, they had faced a public financial battle with their management Pebbitone, Inc. and label, LaFace Records. This caused the delay between their sophomore and third efforts. In 1995, the group, who revealed they were "broke" at the 1996 Grammys, filed for bankruptcy in hopes to break their contract and renegotiate a new deal.

They were $3.5 million dollars in debt and earning an 8 percent royalty rate. In November 1996, they settled with Arista and BMG and LaFace for an 18 percent royalty rate. To add to the drama, there were talks of producer Dallas Austin leaving the project because of back-and-forths with TLC and L.A. Reid over the creative direction of the album, the 1999 VIBE cover story stated. Thankfully, the parties resolved their misunderstandings enough to complete one of the biggest albums of the decade.

On 17 tracks, TLC took on sexuality, insecurities, self-reliance, and vulnerability with resistant messaging, their tried and true winning formula. This energy paved the way for Destiny’s Child’s reign in the 2000s, and the transparency R&B singers like SZA, H.E.R. and Summer Walker carry on today. TLC's defiance gave women of the ‘90s permission to be vocal about the spectrum of their emotions, from their sex drives on “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to revenge cheating on “Creep.” FanMail brought more of those goods.

The most notable “No Scrubs,” also considered pop canon, is a scathing critique on men at bottom of the dating pool. “A scrub is a guy, who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta/ always talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**,” Chilli belts in opening lines. The no. 1 track became such a phenomenon that it inspired the petty male response, “No Pigeons” from Sporty Thievz, their biggest claim to fame. Former Xscape members Kandi Burruss and Tameka Dianne "Tiny" Harris penned it and Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, also behind Destiny’s Child’s no. 1 song “Bills, Bills, Bills,” produced it.

TLC tapped the legendary Hype Williams for the "No Scrubs" visual. Instead of setting the video in a club where scrubs are likely inhabitants, the visual features the trio in outer-space suits floating through a futuristic setting no scrub could ever reach. Most notably Lopes, who in the video does martial arts while a drone films her, manages to keep the digital theme, even when dissing the guys. “Can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me/You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens,” Lopes raps.

The wonky bop “Silly Ho” is another anti-playa anthem, in which TLC proclaim they aren't the kind of women who are scheming for men's pockets. “I can run a scam before he can/ I am better than a man/ I always keep my game all day,” they chant. TLC keeps demanding respect on the choppy “My Life,” their Janet Jackson Control moment, appropriate given their music industry woes.

TLC breaks from jittery beats and Vic-E assisted numbers for alternative pop, on the album’s second no. 1 hit single "Unpretty," which tackles insecurities caused by a toxic partner’s body-shaming. T-Boz deads him by summoning self-love: “Maybe get rid of you/ And then I'll get back to me, yeah.” The track was inspired by a poem T-Boz wrote, Dallas Austin told CNN in 2000. He also spoke on the songs’ folky essence. "I like a lot of alternative music, and when I saw the title, “Unpretty” reminded me of a song somebody like (alternative singer) Ani DiFranco would have (written). I just went at it,” he explained. The crew also gave us sensual beckoning on the mid-tempo groove “Come On Down,” penned by legendary pop songwriter Diane Warren.

The album ends with soulful bop “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,” but it’s “Communication (Interlude)” that feels like the proper conclusion. “There's over a thousand ways/ To communicate in our world today/ And it's a shame/ That we don't connect,” they say in a spoken word that offers a foreshadowing to our present human condition. Loneliness is on the rise, and more screen time and less human interaction are being linked to growing depression among American adolescents. "So if you also feel the need/ For us to come together/ Will you communicate with me?” As technological advancements create the feeling of being in closer proximity to more people's thoughts and happenings, it reminds us that these interactions can be fleeting and one-on-one intimacy with your chosen tribe could never become obsolete.

Although its 1999 original drop date has come and gone, in 2019, FanMail is still a fitting soundtrack for dating in the digital age. Whether they're making their contact through the passenger sides of cars or down in the DMs, the personalities pointed out on the poignant album, are still walking amongst us, messing with our hearts one way or another. FanMail proved that TLC was more in tune with the future than their pop peers, and will more than likely continue to be.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Meet Afro B, The UK Artist Whose Hit Song "Joanna" Put Him Atop The Afrobeats Wave

Afro B is tired. Or at least, he’s got to be with the nearly gap-free schedule that’s been carved out for him this week. It’s a brisk Friday in February, and while he’s chummy upon arrival at VIBE’s Midtown office, the London-raised Afrobeats artist with deep Ivory Coast roots is trying to keep his energy level up.

He hasn’t stopped running around since he landed in New York a day or so ago, already hitting a bevy of popular local radio stations. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the stops he has to make before preparing for his 3 a.m. performance alongside Funkmaster Flex at Brooklyn’s Milk River tonight. Well, tomorrow. Yeah, R.I.P. to that sleep schedule.

But why nap when you’re running off the high of a world finally catching wind and diving into the genre of music he’s long held close to heart? A DJ by trade, the man born Ross Bayeto has always been plucking and curating songs for his listeners to really move to, but now when it’s his own music? Game over.

“I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment,” he says of the rise of Afrobeats music and his rapidly rising place in it. It’s been a full year since his banner song, “Drogba (Joanna),” hit the airwaves, but there’s virtually no way to tell. Based on how fired up the dance floors of the U.S., UK, African countries and beyond get when it comes on, the song hasn’t aged a bit. It still sounds as fresh as when it first rang out in London clubs. Afro B knows better than anyone that there’s no expiration tag on a vibe, especially when the music ignites a new moment every time it reaches a new international border.

“This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting,” he says. “But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. I just have to keep going.”

With “Joanna” under his belt and another potential hit on the way ("Shape Nice," a new collaboration with Vybez Kartel and Dre Skull drops on Feb. 25), it’s now about maintaining that momentum, riding that wave into the next level of his career, and representing the sweet sounds of the culture he loves so much. “If I'm standing for Africa and the culture,” he says, “I need to push what's going on inside it.”

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VIBE: Tell me a little bit about what brings you to New York. Afro B: For 10 years, I've been pushing this Afrobeats genre and African music and the culture. I had a [DJ] residency at a club called NW10 [in London] and they predominantly played dancehall music and R&B. So, it's kind of hard to break free because I only have sets that would last for 5-10 minutes, or two songs in and the crowd's not dancing because they're not used to what I'm playing. As time went on and we're getting big records from Wizkid and stuff, that's when more people warmed up to it, and, yeah I'm here today. I made the transition from the DJ to an artist five years ago. I made the hit “Joanna,” and that's what brought me to this club world, to New York.

Were people hesitant at first when you were like, "okay, I'm not DJing anymore?" Yeah, of course. ‘Cause people are used to me just shutting down the clubs, making it lit inside. But then they're like, "oh why are you making music, why are you leaving this behind?" At first, I was the DJ making music, now I'm the artist that can DJ. Every week I got a rager show. An Afrobeats rager show that's promoting it every Saturday, 11 p.m. until 1 [a.m.].

What made you want to decide to be an artist? Specifically, an Afrobeats artist? When I was growing up I always listened to African music and I used to play keys in church. So, yeah. The typical story. African music has always been in the blood. I've always been proud about being African and just promoting where I'm from. That's definitely the reason.

 

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Following God’s lead that’s all. 🙏🏾🏆🇨🇮

A post shared by Afro B 🇨🇮‪ (@afrob__) on Jan 23, 2019 at 10:53am PST

Can you break down Afrobeats for those who are unfamiliar? It's easy to just say anyone of African descent making similar music is doing Afrobeats, but maybe that's not the case. Can you break down if there are any distinctions surrounding the genre? Sub-genres like Afropop? Afrobeat without the “s”? Right now it's a bit confusing because there's so many elements merged into one thing. You could hear a track and hear like a dancehall melody in there with a hip-hop hook or the straight-authentic African. So, it's hard to pinpoint where exactly it is, but Afrobeats is the name we're giving it. But Afrobeat without the "s" is more traditional, then over time the sound just started to evolve and evolve, now it is what it is today.

Are people open to it being called or labeled Afrobeats? It's mostly the Nigerians that always have a debate on what we should call something. Yeah, most people are familiar with just calling it Afrobeats. I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment. I still call it Afrobeats at the same time. Wave is my thing. That's my brand. Just a wave of what's happening at the moment, the new school kind of African sound.

So who else would you put in the Afrowave category? Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy—Burna Boy bounces from dancehall sometimes. There's a lot of UK artists doing that sound, like mixing rap with Afrobeat melodies and dancehall. There’s an artist called J Hus. Kojo Funds. Yeah, there's so many names, man. And the Ghanaian artists as well. There's even a whole French scene that's crazy as well, but they call it Afrotrap, which is more uptempo. Then you got the Angolans and South Africans that have their house vibes. There's a lot of different angles. We should just call it African music but Afrobeats is what the majority call it, the English speakers call it.

Let's talk about the song I got to know you for: “Joanna.” Or “Drogba.” Who is that? He's an icon from my country, Ivory Coast. He used to be a top soccer player—we say football—who used to play for a team called Chelsea and he had incredible impacts. Everyone from my country just saw him as a hero because you know he was representing us. So, in African music, there can be a lot of shout outs towards different people that are making noise or have a lot of money or whatever. There will be artists that will shout out politicians, footballers, maybe NBA players or just random female names like what I did with Joanna.

Yeah, I was about to say, who is Joanna? What does she have to do with anything? We concentrate more on the vibe than the lyrics. When I was in the studio, I was putting more the melodies first and then picking out the words that I thought I could hear. Joanna's what I picked out. Do you want me to explain the lyrics? So "your busybody" means there's a lot going on. “Your busybody busy tonight/Joanna don't leave me outside. Your busybody giving me life." Yeah, that's it. And then, "how you going to play me like Drogba," and that's kind of a metaphor ‘cause he plays soccer. Don't play me like how he did. Don't play with my feelings, you know what I mean?

Why do you think that now it seems that the U.S. is catching up to songs like “Joanna”? Usually we’re late to the international party. Yeah, I released it this time last year. Last year, I took multiple trips here [to New York], just making the most out of it when I was out here. Pushing the song, going to different shows and just drilling it into people's heads. So amongst the African community here that were bringing me out here, it was popping amongst us. I think now it's gotten to a point they did word of mouth to the mainstream people. And now, yeah, now it's picking up here. It's gotten to a point where it's hitting different territories and then it's fresh there. Then it's just like a brand new song again.

Do you think it's necessary to come in and put in that groundwork? I feel that social media's good, but when they see you in person, it's something else. It's feeding your energy, connecting with you, and just getting a better understanding of what it is. When I was coming up, it was a few people calling it reggae and dancehall and then I had to correct them. "This is Afrobeats," and I was showing them different artists and my other songs so that they get a better understanding of what is.

That seems like your DJ sensibility kicking in, too. Working it into the crowd. You just understand the crowd. Yeah, and then it just builds up from there. And also another thing that helps, I attached a dance challenge to it, mainly on Instagram. That was the #DrogbaChallenge, and the craziest thing is, a lot of people that got involved with the challenge were not African. So I was getting Colombians doing the dance, Indian, Dubai, people from out here [in the U.S.]. That gave me an indication that this tune is actually spreading like wildfire. Let me just keep pushing the challenge to see how far it goes. And even after now, I'm still getting videos of people dancing to the song, so that was like a way to market and make it spread.

Where's the craziest place that you've seen your song or your work appreciated? I think it was at an NBA game. I'm not sure what game it was, but just to see the DJ play it. It was a [Dallas Mavericks] DJ Poizon Ivy that played it. And then she just sent me the video, but I didn't know it at the time. She played it during the break time and just ran the tune. That was a big moment.

What songs do you think paved the way for this global movement that Afrobeats is having? The first one I recall is Dbanj’s collab with Kanye West. That opened doors. I think that Snoop Dogg did a song with Dbanj as well, but that didn't impact as much as the one he did with Kanye. That was called “Oliver Twist.” There’s an artist from the UK called Fuse [ODG], he had more impact in that, the European and the Middle East and the UK as well. So he has songs called “Azonto” and “Antenna.” Obviously, the cosigns from Drake as well with “One Dance,” and I think Beyonce posted a couple clips and had like Afrobeat music in the background. Little things like that are just helping it elevate. And Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You" had some African influences so, that was helping it come from underground to mainstream. Just getting cosigns from the major artists.

What does it feel like when you as an international artist see your music get bigger than where you're from? It's crazy because it's gotten to a point when I'm not surprised a celeb is vibing to the song because people that I grew up listening to are vibing to it as well. So I was like, damn. The other day I received a clip of Trey Songz singing it on the mic, I think he was hosting a club night. Ashanti. It was Cardi B in the background, and her sister was vibing to it. And they're fully posting it on their main page and stuff. 50 Cent's son as well. I use it as an indication to show me that, I should keep pushing it because it could get to a serious level. ‘Cause I think the issue is that they give it a certain time, then they'll just move onto the next song and then they don't let the song that could potentially blow up everywhere enough time to grow. Like I said, [“Joanna”] came out this time last year, I'm still pushing the same song. And I’ve only dropped two songs. Well, two songs with a remix in between. That's it. Add more to the fire.

So you're letting it cook. Because attention spans are so short now, that I think people are scared. But that's what's crazy. This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting. But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. There's large amounts of people, I just have to keep going basically.

Do you think it's necessary to have a cosign? It helps it, it helps speed up the process. It going from underground to mainstream. And it also makes a listener who's not used to the sound warm up to it or accept it. Whereas before if it wasn't cosigned by these people, nothing worked. "What the hell is this?" And then just continue listening to whatever they listen to. So, it is kind of important to get those cosigns from major people or major influences for sure.

 

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@treysongz singing Drogba (Joanna) 🔥🔥 See the joy! This is mad mad mad #AfroWave

A post shared by Afro B 🇨🇮‪ (@afrob__) on Dec 29, 2018 at 2:14am PST

Some Afrobeats songs will be in English, then weave in native language or dialect slang. Do you think there's a way for songs to still have a huge impact globally and really connect without incorporating English? I don't think so, ‘cause I think people need to connect somehow. And I feel that they connect through the lyrics as well as the vibe. The vibe is always there, but if they can understand what's going on, what the artist is saying, what message the artist is trying to send, then they can connect with it more. That's why I feel that “Joanna” works because 95 percent of it is in English. Then there's a bit of Pidgin, a bit of French.

Are there people you'd like to collaborate with down the line, both within the Afrobeats space and then outside of it? Inaudible. Within, I’ve already ticked off who I wanted to collaborate with, which is Wizkid. He did the remix to “Joanna.” Vybez Kartel was in the wish list as well, so, I've ticked that. That's on the way. American-wise: Drake, Swae Lee, Tory Lanez, the melodic people that can add to the vibe. I grew up listening to 50 Cent, Akon. All of the melodic people. I think these days people prefer vibes more than lyrics because right now, there’s a lot of mumble rapping. We don’t know what’s happening, but it sounds lit, innit? Instrumentals are right. Young Thug is an example. He sounds wavy, but we don’t know [what he’s saying].

I looked at your video for your song, “Melanin.” Shout out to you for casting those all those shades of black women. What is it that you love most about the black woman? Everything, man. Everything. I feel like I want to promote them, put them in the forefront, because watching a lot hip-hop videos or whatever, they don't promote the black woman. They'll promote all these models and whatever, Instagram models, but they're not promoting the black African beauty. And if I'm standing for Africa and the culture, I need to push what's going on inside it.

Who do you make your music for? Who do you have in mind when you're creating your music? Everybody. Global. I just want to promote the culture, give them an insight. Shine a good light towards Africa, because I feel like when people think about it, they just think it's poor. If you’ve noticed, for a lot of music videos, they always go to the streets, the projects or whatever, to shoot a video. Like, there's other parts, you know. They always do it. I think the Americans do it the most. I think, "why are you always going there?" Omarion's video, he's in the middle of nowhere, he's in a tribe, and I'm thinking, we're not like that. We're normal people! At the end of the day, everyone's African. We understand each other. The only difference is probably our accents, at times, but you know, there's poor people in America. There's poor people everywhere. We're all the same. But, I don't know, sometimes people think there's a difference between African American and Africans, when that isn't the case. I just wanted to add that, that everyone's one. They should be together. Unity. That's what I stand for.

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VICELAND

Meet John Henry, Host Of VICELAND's New Business Show 'Hustle'

John Henry is a hustler. The 26-year-old, born to Dominican parents and raised in Harlem, knows the right thing to say at the perfect time. His uncanny ability to maneuver in different settings paired with his innate business acumen has catapulted him from a doorman to a part-owner of Harlem Capital, a company designed to invest in businesses created by women and minorities.  

At 18, Henry’s entrepreneurial journey started when a resident of the Brooklyn building where he worked took notice of his intellect and vibrant personality. The tenant owned a dry-cleaning business and offered Henry a chance to make money if he contracted clients for his venture. Eventually, he would end up making the larger part of the profits. This small start led him to develop Mobile City, a dry-cleaning service that winded up catering to Hollywood’s most prominent television and film sets. His first big break in Tinsel Town was in the costume department for The Wolf of Wall Street. He ended up landing more contracts within entertainment, which led him to drop out of community college to solely focus on his company. Since then, he’s sold the business for an undisclosed hefty amount.

“I understood early on that the real money wasn’t the $14 an hour that I was making — the real currency was the people that were there,” Henry tells VIBE. “I had a very people focus approach very early on. When people see something in someone they want to help them out, so there was this one resident in particular, a Boricua guy, who told me, 'You’re too fu**ing smart to be behind the desk, you can have your own doorman. Don’t settle for being the doorman.'”

Now, with his new VICELAND show titled Hustle (executive produced by Alicia Keys and Marcus Samuelsson), Henry sounds like a seasoned vet who’s an owner of five Fortune 500 companies while mentoring the entrepreneurs featured on the eight-episode show. He uses terms like Riches n Niches, Brand Equity, and Biz Def to break down his strategy on helping these businesses go from unknown status to mainstream lucrative ubiquity.

On the first episode, viewers meet Ashley Rouse, the owner of Trade Street Jam, a company that sells $12 vegan jams made out of fruit with low sugar. During the episode, Henry persistently attempts to coax Ashley into quitting her 9 to 5 job to focus on her business. According to a recent interview with XO Necole, Rouse did leave her corporate job.

Amid hosting Hustle and being a part-owner of Harlem Capital, Henry also owns a real estate business and owns 17 apartments in two buildings in Allentown, Penn., Fortune reports. “The sky is the limit” is definitely an understatement when it comes to Henry’s work ethic and drive.

Here, VIBE chatted with him about how he hustled his way to Hustle.

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VIBE: How did you come up with the idea of a dry-cleaning business at 18, and then get Hollywood clients off it? John Henry: I didn’t come up with the idea for the dry cleaner. I didn’t come up with the idea for a lot of stuff that I’ve done, which is interesting because we’re made to feel like an entrepreneur is someone who has this brilliant idea — and sometimes that’s true, but, more often than not, it’s just a matter of making something out of what’s presented to you.

And here’s what I mean: this resident already owned a dry cleaner. That’s how he made his money. He said, “John, I own this dry-cleaning facility. I don’t have much in this world, but I have this. You go and make something out of it. Convince anyone, I don’t care who it is, go out there and hustle and convince someone to give you their clothes. And if you bring this to me, I’ll clean them for wholesale rate. You charge the market rate and you make the spread.”

So in other words, a suit would cost you $12 to dry clean, it would cost me $4 so I would make the $8 spread. So I was like "Ok.” Eight dollars a piece isn’t much money, but if you’re talking 100 pieces it’s looking much better or 1,000 pieces that’s even better than that. Immediately, I fell in love with the idea that in entrepreneurship the results are really in your hands because no matter how much I open that door, my income was capped as a doorman. Whereas being an entrepreneur it was all up to me.  

To answer your question on how I got started in Hollywood, that also wasn’t my idea. I started promoting my business, so one of the residents in the building told me “I’m in film/TV, we need someone to do our dry cleaning because we shoot at three in the morning and no dry cleaner is open at that time.”

Obviously, he’s like, “What time do you get out.” And I was like, “At 11.” He picked me up, took to me to set of what became my first film account, which was The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was fortunate they gave me a chance. I did well with it. And then he said, "There is a new account. I’m going to introduce you.” That new account was Boardwalk Empire, and Law & Order: A Person Of Interest. Then I went on to do White Collar and Ninja Turtle. I quit my job. I dropped out of college and I really went for this full time.

How did your parents take you dropping out of college? As immigrant parents, they came here and they always had this vision of us being a doctor or a lawyer. They were definitely not thrilled when I told them that I was going to leave school and that I was going to start a business. They were like, “Alright what business?” I said, “Dry cleaner.” They were like, “What?!” because my father was actually a presser growing up. They felt like, “Dude we didn’t come here so you can take a step back, we want you to take a step forward.” But they didn’t understand at the time that it wasn’t about the industry, it was about ownership. That’s the first time I ever really owned anything and now they are my biggest fans. They came around but it took them a little while.   

Did you handpick the contestants on Hustle? VICE gives me a lot of creative liberty. We have a casting company that spreads the word and gets hundreds of applications. Then they’ll do all that part for me and boil it down to like maybe five or 10 finalists per episode. And then I choose who I get most excited by. I drive what happens in the episodes. It’s my vision for how the entrepreneur should grow their business. I told them early on that it would be hard for me to work with a business that didn’t fascinate me. With Ashley, for instance, I hand chose her and I was really adamant about working with her. Every business in the whole season you’ll see was hand selected by me and I was very excited to work with each one of them.

Did you come up with the three business models presented on the show: Riches n Niches, Biz Def and Brand Equity? Do you use them in your own business approach? That section of the show we call Biz Pod. It’s something we came up with. I’m glad you asked because it was kind of a funny story of how that whole device came to be. We were shooting the pilot and I’m so engulfed in my own world that I’m not even noticing when I’m using business lingo. I keep saying we have to biz def or we have to build brand equity. Those are not terms that I made up, but those are terms that are used in business, that maybe are not commonly used outside of business. My director was like, “John what the hell is biz def?” Then Ashley was like, “What’s biz def?” That’s when we realized there is an opportunity here to actually educate the viewer.

We really fell in love with this idea of producing the show around showing an authentic look at entrepreneurship and along the way educate the viewer on some key terms that we think they should take away. That’s kind of how we came up with that little device that ended up being called biz pods. I choose all the terms as well. My director and I go back and forth on what we feel is the best biz pod for the episode and then we take it from there.

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Take 30 secs to watch this. ⠀ . ⠀ I’ll say say this ‘til im blue in the face... if it ‘clicks’ for even 1 person it was worth it. ⠀ . ⠀ It’s not the idea... it’s the bravery to act on that idea. ⠀ . ⠀ Now go and get it. 💪🏾 ⠀ . ⠀ #entrepreneur #IdeasAreEasy #ExecutionIsEverything #founderlife #startup #afrotech #one37pm

A post shared by John Henry (@johnhenrystyle) on Dec 11, 2018 at 5:19am PST

On the show, you speak with a lot of conviction about the decisions you think must be made in order to achieve success. Were you always this confident or was this a muscle you had to develop? Definitely a muscle I had to develop. The more time you spend in the arena, the more confident you become in your own abilities. But also, the more self-awareness you develop. I have no problem saying, “I’m being too stubborn,” or taking a step back and saying, “I think I’m wrong here.” But one thing I did learn over the years is when you’re in the driver’s seat you have to be careful because sometimes people come with interests that are not aligned with yours. That is a learned skill that comes with time.

What are some challenges that you’ve faced in your career? So many. For starters, I would say one of my biggest challenges was figuring out how the whole machine works. The reason why I’m really passionate about the show is because we get a chance to offer a glimpse to people about the fundamentals of building a business, like the basic building blocks because if you grow up in an affluent neighborhood you kind of have examples, role-models, support networks, all around you at any given time.

If you have a question about taxes you have an uncle that’s an accountant, or your auntie that’s a lawyer or something like that. Growing up in The Heights, in any underserved low-income community, that infrastructure does not exist so the hardest part that took me years to learn was how the whole game works. I’m talking about how the whole machinery works.

How does business affect a community? How does real estate affect a community? How does politics affect business? All these pieces that seem kind of separate are actually very closely interconnected. And it took me probably five or six years to really develop a macro perspective. Now that I have that framework I really feel like I can go on and do anything. So that’s the same understanding that I really want to impart on people both through my personal efforts like the content I create on Instagram and obviously something like the show.

Dominicans make good business people. In New York, many of the corner grocery stores are Dominican or Arab-owned. And Dominicans also own a lot of taxi car companies. Has your cultural background influenced your business sense? Absolutely, and you’re right Dominican people are good at business. In New York, we tend to be more merchants, but the skills that I learned from our culture are fu**ing invaluable. Even just my mom buying plantains on the corner. She would constantly negotiate. My dad trained me to be really resourceful. We had so little growing up that he would teach me to make the most out of it. All these ingrained lessons from our communities were instilled in me. Now that I’m in the corporate arena I’m a beast because a lot of these kids I’m with grew up in a different life path. Now that we’re in the same rooms I find myself consistently outwitting and outmaneuvering a lot of these people because maybe they don’t have some of that cultural edge.

If you can come from a disadvantaged position and make it, you end up having such a massive edge because then you have both; street smarts and book smarts. I think of Jay-Z, he maneuvered real danger and the streets. And now for him to sit in a boardroom there is no one else in that boardroom who’s had his life experience, which makes it even more valuable.

 

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Posting this again for #MondayMotivation cause it gets me so HYPE. 🔥🔥 ⠀ -⠀ HUSTLE premiers on @VICELAND February 10th. ⠀ -⠀ Tag a friend who should see this!👇🏾👇🏾 ⠀ -⠀ #hustlevice #entrepreneur #hustle #viceland #vice #xt4

A post shared by John Henry (@johnhenrystyle) on Jan 14, 2019 at 5:25am PST

What do you think is the biggest risk you can take in your career now? The biggest risk right now that you can take as a business person is to take no risk. If you default to just doing things the way you’ve done them you will go out of business because everything is changing so fast. The media is being consumed differently. Weed is being legalized, retail is going out of business. The mall that used to be so hot is now being replaced by Amazon. Lawmaking and policy-making are now being shifted by artificial intelligence, cars are going to be self-driven. Every industry is changing so much, so the most dangerous risk you can take is not doing anything different.

I love risks because with high risks comes high reward. And it doesn’t always work out and that’s the scary part about it. I’m just focusing on leveraging this opportunity. My biggest risks are all on the Harlem Capital side. I have a $25 million fund and we invest in women and minorities. I don’t just talk about this. We put our money where our mouth is and invest our money into companies owned by people that look like us, and that’s very risky business because a lot of businesses don’t make it.

What do you hope people in your community will take away from being on this show? I’m already starting to see the response. Dozens of people a day are reaching out to me saying, “I’m so proud just to see someone who looks like me that understands business and is on camera while helping other people.” The byproduct of this show is going to be good because people are going to have role models, they are going to see real stories of people who look like them striving to make it, and making it.

Hustle airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on VICELAND. 

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