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On 'Captured,' Spice Proves Women Can Rule Dancehall One Hit At A Time

Straight from the country that birthed reggae and dancehall greats like Patra, Lady Saw, Lady Junie, Sister Nancy, Tanya Stephens, and Lady G, Spice cements her name alongside the icons one chart-topping hit at a time.

Since her childhood, Spice knew the career path she wanted to attain would come with its fair share of roadblocks. After putting in work and releasing a stream of singles in the early 2000s, Spice would receive minor recognition here and there. Despite this slow-burn to stardom, the determined artist kept her foot on the gas until VP Records presented her with a contract in 2009. While maintaining the love she has for the dancehall genre, the “Complain (Mi Gone)” singer knew that she had to adopt an independent artist’s tenacity and hunger for success. Her knack for charting melodies began to become the norm, but with little support from the label (according to Spice), the fortified singer had to find her own way to become a household name.

Spice’s first appearance on the charts arrived nearly 10 years ago. The Jamaica-born singer and glorified dancehall artist Vybz Kartel collaborated on “Romping Shop,” the pair’s erotic take on Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent.” The melody peaked on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart at No. 76 in 2009, solidifying an already influential being in Kartel and a destined-for-stardom demeanor in Spice. In 2014, her So Mi Like It EP landed at No. 14 on Billboard’s U.S. Top Reggae Albums chart. Today, the “Fiesta” artist is celebrating her place on the boards again with her mixtape Captured, but this time the self-proclaimed dancehall queen reigns at the top spot.

Released in November 2018, Captured (Spice Official Entertainment) broke through the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart at No. 1 (Nov. 17). The 19-track project displays Spice at her finest: the melodies that her fans long for like “Mine Mine Mine” to “Body Right” are abundantly sprinkled throughout the mixtape. While those whine-tastic songs will get any waistline rocking, tracks like “Black Hypocrisy” and “Captured” put into perspective the harsh realities the singer, born Grace Latoya Hamilton, faces in her career.

The title track, which strikes an emotional chord within Spice when she performs it, is dedicated to her label VP Records and emotes a feeling of being trapped in a deal that has yet to fulfill its promise in her eyes. “They signed an album deal with me from 2009 for a five-album deal and they’ve never released an album with me,” Spice says. “Even when I visited them with lawyers, they still don’t want to release me out of the contract.” The revelation was made public earlier this year when Spice sent a stern message to the label. The statement prompted a response from VP Records, which reassured fans that it’s working on “finalizing the album and all the necessary clearances.”

While Spice tackled that aspect of her career, she also took a stand in the face of another battle plaguing many people of color across the globe. On “Black Hypocrisy,” Spice poses a question of whether she'll find success with lighter skin. To ensure the message was not only heard but seen, Spice erased all photos from her Instagram account and shared a new look that had spectators confused or infuriated. With a blonde wig and fair skin, the artist sparked a conversation on colorism and the psychological effects it has on people who go through the process of lightening their skin to appear acceptable in society’s view.

To amplify her message, Spice endured a four-hour transformation that was made possible by “about 10 bottles of makeup.” The video for the song has amassed over 3.4 million views on YouTube and went straight to No. 1 on the iTunes Reggae Singles chart.

Although Spice pulled from previous experiences of people making her feel as if her skin is a detriment, it was the comment of an unnamed dark-skinned woman that inspired Spice to go full throttle with the song’s creation. According to Spice, the lyric “Dem seh mi black til mi shine, til mi look dirty” was said to her by that aforementioned woman, a statement Spice says rocked her core but encouraged her to keep fighting against the sentiment. The woman later apologized after hearing her words on the song, which Spice posted on Instagram.

“As many people who know Spice as dancehall queen I never normally attack social commentary or certain types of issues,” she says. “I’m normally a raunchy singer. So for me to come out with a picture and the reggae type of songs that I did was a shocker to the world. I also believe that’s what caused the great uproar because they were so shocked regarding the picture that I posted and also the message in the song because they did not expect that from Spice.”

Pulling a fast one on her worldwide fans is something Spice says she was not hesitant to go forth with even though her team members were reluctant to her idea out of fear of “negative feedback.” Despite the apprehension, Spice took on the role “fearlessly.”

“As a black woman myself, I know what I’ve been going through over the years and growing up as a child. Even in my adulthood, it still affected me. I wanted to use my platform to bring awareness to colorism because it is something that has been swept under the rug for years.” As a fortified entertainer, though, Spice hopes other black women across the world and out of the spotlight, “take the baton and run with me” to defeat colorism.

Spice says her “Black Hypocrisy” single “sets the bar so high” for her mixtape because of its early success, and given that achievement, her mission to educate listeners from her Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta fame on the “realness” of dancehall culture was a sure bet. Although melodies like "Gum" and "Big Horse" serve as a great introduction to the majority of Spice's past lyrical content, "Yass Goodie" and "Romantic Mood" present the foundation for which Spice stands tall on.

On the latter, Spice pays homage to her foremothers in the 1980s-90s era of dancehall and reggae. Patra, Lady Ann, Sister Charmaine, Dawn Penn, and Sister Nancy are a few of the names the entertainer lists when asked about the song's inspiration. To invoke their spirits on wax, Spice reached out to famed producer Clevie (part of the legendary production duo Steely and Clevie) to create this timeless sound.

"I told him I wanted the same exact track that those ladies used to record from, from back in the ‘80s of dancehall music, which was also one of the most popular riddims from out of dancehall, which is called the Giggi Riddim," Spice says. While Clevie met Spice's request with confusion because he had "a new riddim that was more 2018," Spice was adamant on re-imagining that popular base for her day one and new supporters. Some of the samples that are found within include Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)," "Romantic Call" with Patra and Yo-Yo, and the everlasting "Bam Bam" by Sister Nancy. For Spice, these women "paved the way so that I could have a role as queen of the dancehall right now.”

Even within this title, Spice hopes her leadership can help usher in the next class of women dancehall artists. In a "male-dominated business," she understands the hardships that women in the genre face, mainly because of dancehall's entrenched nature. "For women to tackle it and be on top of it or to be respected in the genre, she has to be aggressive, very hardcore delivery wise, she has to be on point," Spice says. "It's not a genre where any and anybody can come up and sing two ABC songs and people say, 'Yes, that's an artist,' or 'Yes, that's a dancehall artist.' It's very difficult, aggressive, hardcore genre and that's why most of the women have it so hard and difficult because people don't take them seriously."

In 1994, Billboard introduced its Reggae Albums chart. Only nine solo women within the genre have attained a No. 1 title, as reported by The Tropixs. On Aug. 6, 1994, Patra entered the listing with Queen Of The Pack. It spent 17 weeks at the top spot. The chart was later dominated by Bounty Killer, Shaggy, and Bob Marley & The Wailers until 1997 when Diana King's Think Like a Girl disrupted the boys' club. If a solo woman artist within the genre appeared on the chart from that point onward, they were found within compilation albums like Reggae Gold, Dancehall Xplosion, or Pure Reggae.

In 2014, Etana's I Rise peaked at the top for a week. Joss Stone also spent a month atop the roster with her first full-length reggae album Water For Your Soul in August 2015, before returning to No. 1 for a week in two separate months: once in September and the next in November. HIRIE's Wandering Soul took home the gold in 2016, while last year saw Queen Ifrica's Climb, and Tenelle's For The Lovers at No. 1 on separate occasions. Just this year, Hollie Cook's Vessel Of Love went No. 1 for two weeks in February, while Santigold's I Don't Want: The Gold Fire Sessions landed up top in August 2018.

While the latter half of the 2010s saw a minor bout of consistency with women on the reggae charts, Spice is hopeful that the future of the genre, including dancehall, will be increasingly inclusive of its women creatives. "There's a lot of different women in dancehall right now, and I believe that each of them are representing themselves in a different way," Spice says. By clinging to her mission, Spice also believes if she remains authentic to the true essence of dancehall, then more doors will continue to be opened. "That's why I try to represent the genre itself in such a way where I stick to the roots and stick to the hardcore dancehall so that people can know that's really the genre and love it for itself."

To stay on the track of making history and showing the next generation that goals can be fulfilled if authenticity is your middle name, it's important (and a no-brainer) for Spice to celebrate her wins. Ahead of the mixtape's release, "Black Hypocrisy" went No. 1 on iTunes' Top Reggae Singles while Captured netted the top spot on the U.K. iTunes Reggae Albums chart. The listing is consistently dominated with classic melodies by Bob Marley & The Wailers so "for me that's a great accomplishment because Bob Marley is the greatest reggae icon to ever have walked the face of the Earth and for me, little Spice, to have taken him from the number one position is something that needs to be applauded," she says.

Another artist familiar with breaking a record once held by Marley is Buju Banton, who garnered the title for the most No. 1 singles in Jamaica in 1992. Banton’s 'Til Shiloh album (1995) recently rose to No. 1 on the iTunes Top Reggae Albums chart, a position previously held by Bob Marley & The Wailers' Legend (Remastered). Banton was released from a U.S. prison on Dec. 7 after serving seven of his 10-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm, and intent to sell cocaine. Immediately after his discharge, Banton boarded a plane to return to his family in Jamaica.

"Buju Banton is one of our reggae icons so his returning to Jamaica is going to be a well-celebrated moment," Spice says. "Despite the negative backlash that they have of him out there in the world, we are still going to love him as our own." Banton’s release also accompanies another momentous moment for Jamaica.

In late November, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added reggae to its list of global heritage treasures, a feat Spice believes will pave the way for the genre’s inhabitants to make history. “We as artists from Jamaica have been fighting for certain recognition with our genre,” she says. “Even dancehall itself, we also believe that hip-hop takes a bit from dancehall sometimes and we don’t get the credit for certain things. But it may take years but myself as an artist is here to do it a step at a time until it reaches where it should. This is an accomplishment for the genre.”

While hip-hop artists have found major success by recording the sounds of dancehall or reggae (Snoop Dogg-turned-Snoop Lion, The Fugees’ influential blend, even Drake circa Views From The 6), Spice utilized that tactic to inspire a domino effect of getting fans to spin more of her records. During her time on her first season of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, Spice welcomed a new wave of American advocates. To permanently reel them in, the 36-year-old performer made it her mission to record a melody on the mixtape titled “Move Fast” that can find a home on a twerk playlist but still amplify her dialect.

“We took the fact that they love hip-hop, and we used a hip-hop beat and gave them a sound that they’re used to but I would also catch back a little of my native language which is patois and introduce it to them a bit,” she says. “I’m trying to fuse the two so that they would understand more about my genre and maybe if they listen to ‘Move Fast’ they will hear my accent and go, ‘Oh, she’s from Jamaica, she’s in dancehall, let me listen to another track.’ Then they will listen to another track from the mixtape, which is authentic dancehall. Then they may fall in love with the genre.”

In the process of finding adoration for Spice’s beloved dancehall, she hopes that fans will also applaud her for the recent encounter of success, and the fact that she’s operating as an independent artist despite the fact that she’s signed to a major label. “I think for me I’m just humbled over the fact, especially that I did this on my own without my record company,” she says. “I’m really happy and excited and proud of myself for even believing in myself and pushing myself to reach to this limits without no management team or record company. I’m really humbled by my journey.”

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Bail Reform, Civil Rights, And Why Hip-Hop Journalists Need To Get Involved

The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.

As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.

In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.

Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.

For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court. 

As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.

“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons. 

“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”

Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers. 

With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing--and that’s just a few examples.

“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”

As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences. 

It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.

“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

 

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Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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