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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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Fenty And Pyer Moss Model JoAni Johnson Knows The Art Of Being Present

When a 2016 Allure video segment on beauty and aging with grace hit the internet, one of the three subjects immediately held the attention of the masses hostage. It was hard not to quickly fawn over the 60-something woman’s sleek, mature looks, palpable wisdom, gripping gaze, and grounded sense of self. Three years later, that same model, JoAni Johnson, continues to display her elegance for video campaigns, strut down the runways of the designer elite, and stare down cameras for high-stakes fashion photoshoots.

But JoAni Johnson the person barely even likes photos. The 5’4” model with more-salt-than-pepper hip-length tresses waves off compliments about her edgy portfolio. So far, she has photographed for Vogue, ELLE and Essence magazine shoots and campaigns like Pyer Moss, Ozwald Boateng, and most recently, the debut of Rihanna’s Fenty luxury line. However, for the Caribbean American woman—while born in Harlem, her family hails from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica—gratitude and humility run richly through her veins.

In fact, she considers herself to be a tea blender and specialist before the shinier profession that kicked off in her 60s. That, and a mother, which makes her role as a spokesperson for Vaseline’s #ListenToYourMoms campaign all the more fitting. “#ListenToYourMoms speaks to me because as a proud mom, continuing to keep traditions alive and passing it onto the next generation of beautiful and strong women in my family, is important," Johnson said. "Throughout my life, my beauty regime has remained simple and the knowledge of the versatility coupled with the healing powers of Vaseline Jelly, has always been a trusted 'go-to' for generations of women in my own life.”

Her successful modeling career has admittedly been a whirlwind of excitement, nerves, glamour, risks, and stepping way outside of her comfort zone. However, above all her main goal is to stay present and take in each and every moment as it comes. While taking a break from overseeing a New York photoshoot, Johnson opened up about the art of living in the now, how beauty and self-care are intertwined, and all the lessons she’s learned from motherhood.

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VIBE: You’ve been the face of so many notable campaigns this year, like Fenty and Pyer Moss. Would you describe your modeling journey as something that you've planned or more serendipitous? JoAni Johnson: Totally serendipitous, I did not plan this. If you would've asked me two and a half years ago or told me that this would be my life, I would have told you are insane. It happened by chance. The universe has been very, very good to me and I'm just very grateful.

 

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Enormous thanks and love to @Badgalriri (a true visionary!) and @LVMH for choosing me to be on the right side of history with you, as unapologetic fashion game-changers. Representation matters. It always has and this @Fenty campaign is so excellent and so important for multiple reasons in 2019. The marathon certainly continues. #DisruptAllFashionRules #greyhairdontcare #Fenty Shot by @_glen_luchford

A post shared by JoAni Johnson (@joanijohnson6000) on May 28, 2019 at 8:40pm PDT

In terms of the serendipitous journey to modeling, what was that opportunity that you seized and said, "This could be right, this could not be but let me take it?" I didn't even really think about it. I did not get involved in this of my own. My husband encouraged because I just didn't think it was for me. I come from old-school [train of thought] that said you had to be a certain something in order to be successful. When he encouraged me to—it's so funny, I'm not very fond of photographs of myself. It's gotten a lot better in this new world but in the past with the limitations even in cameras, that industry has expanded. We're getting much more quality photographers. Everything has changed and it's all happening at once, so in the past I've never been very happy with photographs of myself.

How did you, looks of photos aside, to be in front of the camera takes a certain confidence just the presence of being there, how did you I guess? Who's confident? (Laughs) Whenever I do something, it's about being in the moment. This is what the universe has presented me with, I am blessed. I am doing the best that I can in that moment. What is the artist, photographer, make-up artist, hair [stylist], what are they looking for? I am just the muse or the conduit. What is the designer looking for? I shared with someone earlier, I don't look at the photographs, I'm not that person. It's your vision, I am just here to carry out your vision.

What things have you learned about yourself in terms of personal style? My idea of me is different than I am. I grew up in a world where I read Ebony fashion for the glamour in them, but on the real side I fight with myself because I will get things that are really glamorous but it's hard for me to wear them because it attracts people’s attention. It's not that I don't care for it, but it's hard. I'm me. I want people to know the human not the outside, the human. It's more important because we're all beautiful. We all have certain gifts that the universe has bestowed on us, it's for us to find it and to share it.

Let’s talk lineage and the things that we pass on to each other, whether it's our friends, our families. What things have you taken from your mother figures that molded who you are, and that you would in turn pass to those who see you as a mother figure? The biggest influences on me as a child were my grand aunts. They were hardworking beautiful women who had such a sense of style and I'm from Jamaican background, so there's a certain expectation that you were taught. You would call it refinement or whatever but it was the English way, that's where it came from. Good, bad or ugly, that's where it emanated from and they were always very stylish. I watched them as my image of beauty and how they cared for themselves, whether it was using Vaseline on their skin or their nightly rituals of taking it off and washing and I was fascinated. It also showed me their doing it was an expression of their love for themselves and also a relaxation, like they were treating themselves. They worked so hard but it was their time with themselves that they chose to carve out because they didn't have to do it. They carved out in their day to really reward themselves with the hard work that they had endured.

So then how do you carve time out for yourself? What is your relaxation look like? I have passed that on to my daughters as well and my mother was also part of that because she learned from them. She taught me and then I passed it on. How do I do it now? I am a tea specialist, tea consultant, tea blender. Taking that time to sit down and make yourself a cup of tea takes time. Just taking that time, that special time for you to stop and just relax.

Whether I am doing a face mask—and I do a lot of them with tea as a base. I do that once a month with tea as a base and then use the Vaseline to moisturize. I love face massages and I can't afford to pay for them. I have to do it myself and I think Tracee Ellis Ross was showing the [jade] roller that she used, I got one. The simplistic things in life, moisturizing my skin with Vaseline and then using the roller, that's relaxing.

For me it's what I owe myself because nobody is going to do it for me. We would like to think that we got it that way and you know people look at me in this role and think it's so glamorous, and it is. There's parts of it that are absolutely glamorous—when I get to wear a Prada suit, just to see the workmanship and admire the thought that they put into creating something like that and I get to put it on. There's the other times when I'm not in that world, what am I doing to take care of me?

What do you learn from now your children? With Vaseline’s campaign, the idea is to listen to your mothers and your mother figures and take what they've put into your life, but what have you taken from them? It's a two-way street, learning is both ways. What have you learned from your children? My daughters teach me that no matter what we have a responsibility in this world that we're in. I came up in the age of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, there was a struggle there was I was in, there's stories about that but you'll read it in my memos. My girls have another journey and they teach me it's got to be done daily.

My oldest and I were walking down the street and she's got like this vision, peripheral vision and she sees this elderly woman—and I say elderly only because it's a way to describe [her physically]—and she was waiting for the bus. She had packages and was trying to hail a cab and they wouldn't stop. My daughter out of the corner of her eye saw it and she walks over to her and she says, do you need a cab? The woman said yes. I did not see that. Because I am in my life, I don't have that. I wasn't gifted with that kind of vision so she teaches me to be more observant with what is going on around.

When I was growing up, we closed off. I lived in a really tough neighborhood at the time and you just closed off. You just kept it moving from one space to another. My daughter is not like that and she has taught me to be more observant and to be more generous with showing the humane qualities.

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The music group The Commodores and actress Donna Summer on the set of the Columbia Pictures movie " Thank God It's Friday" in 1978.
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Music Sermon: Disco's Revenge - How Disco Demolition Night Sparked Evolution In Black Music

For years, disco was the black sheep of music genres. Characterized as schmaltzy and over the top, the sound of polyester suits, platform shoes, and strobe lights. With this iteration of the dance genre in our minds, it was easy to understand how and why the genre met a swift end 40 years ago.

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted “Disco Demolition Night,” now often referred to as the night disco died. Disco was the victim of a smear campaign, the effectiveness of which has only been seen again in music when 50 Cent destroyed Ja Rule’s career and Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune” killed T-Pain’s. But those were artists. This was an entire genre - a culture, ended by 50,000-plus mostly young, straight white men who were tired (and afraid) of something that wasn’t for or about them.

Music fans and historians have had a collective realization over the last couple of decades that the anti-disco sentiment was all spin. Not really about the music, but who the music represented: Black, Hispanic, Latinx and LGBTQ+ people and women – basically everybody except the bros holding onto classic rock for dear life. By the late ‘70s disco had, in fact, become overly formulaic and cheesy, but in the early days the sounds were lush and rich, the “four on the floor” 120 bpm tempo was infectious and irresistible. Disco created new lanes for DJs and producers, pioneered the modern nightclub/lounge scene (for better or worse), and gave fans license to just dance and be free on the floor. Most importantly, disco provided a sonic backdrop for a changing America, and that’s why Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and his fans were determined to kill it.

In the early ‘70s, marginalized communities were gaining voice and visibility. The “end” of the civil rights movement with the 1968 signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Stonewall Rebellion and subsequent repeal of a NY law forbidding men to dance with each other, and the rise of the women’s liberation movement changed the social conscience first in major cities, and soon the country. The rock and roll and protest music of ‘60s counterculture gave way to something new, especially in major urban metros: dance music.

On Valentine’s Day 1970, DJ David Mancuso threw an invite-only party at his downtown loft which turned into a weekly event, and eventually one of NYC’s hottest nightspots, The Loft. Mancuso’s parties were primarily meant as a safe space gay men, but attendance grew to anyone else who wanted to commune through dance. The Loft was the beginning of NYC disco club culture, and of the guest list-only nightspot. Studio 54 cranked that exclusivity up to create the velvet rope and table service scene we know today. Underground dance clubs like the Paradise Garage followed, niche community havens that served as an escape from the political and fiscal turmoil of the decade. Gay, Black, Hispanic, Latinx and some straight folks partied together all night, literally. The drugs and free love of hippy culture carried over to the scene, but there was usually no alcohol, until 54 opened. These first parties also broke some of the earliest disco hits, before they were called “disco.”

What we overlooked for years in disparaging convos about disco is that it was our music. Disco evolved from black and latin sounds; funk and soul with driving rhythm and layered instrumentation and production. James Brown’s bandleader Fred Wesley once called disco “funk with a bow-tie.” It was smoother and more polished than funk, but more complex than straight soul. The proto-disco sounds that bridged the gap from soul to disco are largely attributed to two sources. The OG Barry White’s "Love's Theme" (which Barry composed and arranged; please put some respect on his name), is considered one of the first “disco” hits. That big sweeping sound he created with the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra was a trademark of early disco songs. By the time “Love’s Theme” hit radio, it had already been in the clubs for about six months.

Philly Soul architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are also credited as laying the foundation for the early disco sound. Philly soul was soul with a kick - a little extra percussion. A few more layers on the instrumentation. A little uptick on the rhythm. A bit more bass. It was danceable. You had to move!

MFSB’s “Love is the Message” (on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International) became a favorite of the early disco set. It was the unofficial theme song of The Loft, a favorite of The Paradise Garage’s famous DJ Larry Levan, and fans of FX’s POSE will remember Pray Tell insisting the song be played nonstop at the balls for weeks, because it reminded him of the simpler, carefree years before the AIDS epidemic hit the community.

In 1972, Manusco found a super obscure import in a Brooklyn record store and started playing it at his parties, then other DJs started bootlegging it to play at their parties. Frankie Crocker, one of the most influential black radio DJs of the 70s, heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and put it on rotation on NY’s WBLS. Atlantic Records - the one label that never missed a black music moment - licensed the song from Dibango’s original label and released a reissue. In the Summer of ’73, the song became the first official disco song to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

Disco wasn’t just Saturday Night Fever moves, especially pre-commercial peak. It was also pop-locking, the bump, roller skating jams - a lot of music we never stopped listening to, but just consider dance music, soul classics, cookout music, Soul Train line joints… We always just called it something else.

Disco also brought back hand-dancing (or couple’s dancing), which had disappeared in popular music after “The Twist” took over dancefloors in 1960. We’ve all seen old heads (or, if you’re my age, tried to get in with the old heads) getting their dance on and just watched in awe of how graceful, effortless and fun it looks. This ain’t nothin’ but the hustle.

Now that we’ve established that disco started as soul and funk with a little extra on it, let’s talk about how disco’s impact endures. Disco is short for “discotheque” - literally translated to "music library." Named as such because records were the focus at discotheques instead of live music. DJs controlled the room, and quickly became crucial to breaking a record. Songs started in the club, not at radio. DJ pools - which later became essential to hip-hop - were created during the disco era to get new songs and mixes out to the clubs as soon as possible.

In NY, DJs started remixing for the first time, extending the best parts (breakbeats, etc) of the hottest songs to keep the crowd in the moment (I still think NY DJs put together the most cohesive music sets because it’s in their DNA, but that’s another sermon), and eventually the 12” version was born. Or in the case of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You,” the 16:50 opus.

Disco also elevated the music producer. Rather than pairing one or two people/teams with an artist for the majority of a project, or automatically using label-affiliated producers, producers became sought after talent for their sounds. They were tapped for a song or two, or some had songs ready and just and needed to find the right vocalist. Producers were beginning to break artists, and the vocal stars were overwhelmingly black women. Church-bred black vocalists, to be exact.

Sounds were about agency, freedom, sexuality, belonging, surviving on their own terms, and they became anthems for the gay rights movement.

Disco allowed for a freedom of identity not seen before in popular culture. Androgyny, fluid and open sexuality, excess and camp. The more outrageous, the better, if that was your thing. Only in disco could an openly gay, COGIC-raised black man like Sylvester transcend from drag shows to superstardom.

As big as disco was growing in cities like NY, Philly and Chicago, it was still a somewhat niche culture. With disco came a level of glamour and opulence that the average American joe wasn’t ready to lean into yet… plus many still saw it exclusively as gay culture. Then, in 1977, “Staying Alive” and Saturday Night Fever changed everything.

Saturday Night Fever marked that tipping point all good things hit once the masses come on board. The movie framed disco around a straight, white (Italian) blue-collar worker and white artists (the Bee Gees). Now it was palatable. The movie and soundtrack were both massively successful, and by 1979 disco had evolved from a cosmopolitan culture to a national scene. Discos started opening in small-town USA, and labels rushed to have any artists who hadn’t dipped their toes into disco yet to record a dance track. Even hardcore rock and pop stars - like Dolly Parton, Sinatra, the Rolling Stones - some with less success than others - all tried their hand. Rod Stewart hates disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” but it’s one of his biggest songs, so no matter how often he’s tried to take it out of his tours in latter years, fans want it.

Disney and The Muppets even got in on the disco craze, probably encouraged by Rick Dees’ 1978 utterly ridiculous, completely novelty No. 1 hit “Disco Duck.”

If we’re keeping it a buck, though, I had the Sesame Street Fever album, and it was a jam. Larry Levan ain’t just hop on any ol’ thing.

Ironically, the Bee Gees never set out specifically to create a disco sound, but they became synonymous with the genre. All of their songs for Saturday Fever had been recorded before the movie was made. But the affiliation defined them for the rest of their careers, and they hated it. "The media made it as if people were afflicted with {disco}," Maurice Gibb told The Washington Post when the group finally reunited to tour a decade later. "And then there were the Village People, 'Disco Duck' and 'Kung Fu Fighting,' all these stupid, silly records that were based on what we were doing but nowhere near it...Unfortunately, it cheapened what we did."

The phase of “stupid, silly records” is what comes to mind when most think of disco, but this was also when disco was at its peak. It was supplanting rock n’ roll as the sound of America, and straight white men started developing that anxiety that straight white men get whenever something isn’t centered around straight white men (see: everything happening in US politics right this moment). The anti-disco movement found an unlikely leader in a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl. Dahl was a chubby, awkward guy with a baby on the way, when his station manager called him into his office on Christmas Eve 1978 to tell him the station was converting to an all disco format at the top of the year. It was like the moment in comic books when the otherwise normal person becomes a villain.

Dahl got another gig at Chicago classic rock station The Loop, but fed his animosity towards disco with daily segments where he’d “blow up” a disco record on air. He built a following, the Coho Lips: a group of young white men who, according to Dahl, “want(ed) to wear our t-shirts and our jeans. And we (didn’t) want to have to wear white three-piece suits to get laid.” (It’s like “economic anxiety”, but with clothes.)

He started hosting anti-disco events, first clad in Hawaiian shirts and then in full military uniform and helmet, where he’d lead enthusiastic chants of “Disco sucks!” as he broke albums over his head. The Chicago White Sox’s owner’s son was a fan, and suggested a co-promotion for a game: fans would bring a disco record to destroy in between doubleheaders, for a discounted admission price of $0.98 cents. The event at first seemed a huge success - over 50,000 fans showed up with reports of 10,000 more outside trying to get in. But after Dahl appeared in an army jeep to set off the dumpster full of vinyl, things went left.

The firepower was stronger than anticipated and destroyed the field, pieces of vinyl started flying all over the place like missiles. The crowd descended from the stands, first in revelry, but then it became more like a riot. People set seats on fire, lit a bonfire in the middle of the field, threw bottles and albums. Players were barricaded in the locker rooms, staff was ordered to evacuate, and the police came to shut it all down.

People were rightfully horrified at the scene, recalling book-burning and dystopian warnings from Bradbury. But Dahl has consistently maintained that Disco Demolition Night wasn’t homophobic or racial, instead calling it a “joyous heat-and-beer-infused celebration” and “one of the greatest radio promotions in history.”

Chicago house pioneer Vincent Lawrence was a 15-year old usher at Comenski field that night, and remembers it differently. He first noticed that people weren’t just bringing disco records to destroy, but black music period. “There’s Marvin Gaye records. And Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. Records that were black records,” he recounted on Gimlet Media’s Undone podcast. He tried to enforce a strict disco rule for the discount, but his boss overrode him. Later, as the melee grew on the field, Lawrence found himself confronted by anti-disco folks. “There were just angry people running up to me, getting in my face saying disco ducks, disco sucks,” he shared. “A kid came up to me and took a 12-inch disk and broke it right in my face. It was like a Marvin Gaye 12-inch or something like that. And I didn’t understand it, until much later, that that was just hate, and that they were directing it at me because I was black and the record was black.”

Disco Demolition Night became a national news story, and by 1980, disco was passe. The anti-disco militia had accomplished their goal; the genre practically disappeared from the airwaves, and punk, new wave and pop took over radio. But disco didn’t really die. It morphed. The underground house music scene immediately started bubbling in Chicago with a sound that was basically stripped down disco. In fact, house pioneer Frankie Knuckles called it “disco’s revenge,” but also thought, as he told music writer Jon Savage, a rebirth was necessary. “Those guys declaring disco being dead actually was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because (the culture) had to turn itself, because it‘d just gotten too much.”

Vince Lawrence, who was working at Disco Demolition Night to save money for a synthesizer, co-wrote and produced what are considered the first house record, “On and On,” with DJ Jesse Saunders.

Some acts made the seamless transition to boogie music; the mellow, groovier side of disco.

Disco and house are the roots for so much of hip-hop, latin freestyle, techno and electronica, and now EDM. The name may have been tarnished, but the culture simply evolved, even as straight white men continue to fight the advance of anything “other” with all their might. At the core, great disco songs are just great songs. They inspire, they encourage, they speak to you, and they make you dance with abandon. How can anybody hate on that? Disco legend Gloria Gaynor summarized disco’s legacy for Vanity Fair: “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music.”

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#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.

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Courtesy of Lion King

Chiwetel Ejiofor Proves The Real Star Of The 'Lion King’ Is Actually The Villain

The bad guy makes the movie what it is. He tests the parameters of your empathy, understanding, and grace, forcing you to see what you’re made of.

This particular bad guy lets resentment fester and rumble in his belly, as his mighty and righteous brother merits admiration and reverence from faithful servants. When it comes to brains, he knows he has the lion's share, but it’s the permanent mark in the shape of a dagger slicing above his left eye that reminds him his brother is the sole proprietor of brute strength.

It's this same villain who deputizes himself among the others also tired of begging for whatever's left to orchestrate a felony so sorrowful, it plucks at your Adam’s Apple, pushing your screams and cries back into your throat because what’s done cannot be undone.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s embodiment of the deceitful Scar is just that: a wondrous amalgamation of pain, defeat, rejection and will bursting onto the big screen in Disney’s live-action remake of the Lion King. Jeremy Irons’ 1994 version of the antagonist, while still deceptive, encapsulated a bit of theatrics and bounce. The only telltale sign of Scar’s venom was his flowing jet-black mane. Ejiofor’s 2019 portrayal is bloated with greed, anger and the need to control. The use of the word “bloated” is hyperbole, of course, as on-screen Scar is thin, almost emaciated and physically hungry for the dominance he feels he’s owed.

There’s no need to rehash the 25-year-old film. Moviegoers can be reassured to know director Jon Favreau stayed true to the movie’s heart. He often replicated important scenes detail for detail, including the quintessential opening sequence with the sun rising over the Pride Lands as zebras, antelope, rhinos and other wildlife assembled to meet and bow to the future king.

And while we know Mufasa dies, his live-action death stings even more.

As Hans Zimmer’s “To Die For” thunders, the wildebeest come running down into the gorge and your 10-year-old self tells Simba to run. Hope is still a possibility after Mufasa saves his cub and leaps from the stampede onto the rocks and climbs to the top. Then your 34-year-old self soothes your inner child, because what happens next—the grave offense Scar commits—is irreversible.

But what most miss about Scar, even after 25 years, is under all of his deplorable ways lies his one admirable quality: ambition.

Scar saw himself among the greats and envisioned a kingdom under his rule. He let nothing get in the way of his chosen destiny, including his weak older brother. Scar couldn’t and wouldn’t settle for being a knight, or a duke or a lord. Scar wanted to be king, so much so betrayal and murder were mere casualties in the race to rule Pride Rock.

Who among us has ever gone after our future with more reckless abandon?

Ejiofor understood this insatiable need to ascend to the greatness Scar believed he possessed, and he channeled that with his voice. The east-London native’s lilt took on whatever emotions needed to give way to Scar's true intentions.

Whether it be the flat, emotionless way he dismissed Simba into the den. (“I don’t babysit,” he sneers) or the way he let his words dangle in the air as he covertly described life as Mufasa's brother ("Others spend their lives in the dark...begging for scraps"), Ejiofor’s reinvention of Scar is more than just a voice over. It’s the inflated and arguably updated blueprint Irons left behind.

Ejiofor showed that to embody Scar meant more than reciting lines from a page. It meant whatever couldn’t be expressed through physical emotion seen on screen had to be demonstrated in the inflections, whispers, and passion of his voice. Scar’s lustful desire to outshine his brother and his brother’s memory was on full display whenever Scar was on screen and Ejiofor zeroed in on that, even from behind a microphone.

With fervor, and indignation Ejiofor’s portrayal of Scar proved why, without him, Simba would be nothing. Without Scar, Simba wouldn’t have to face his biggest foe or know how to. While Mufasa taught him compassion, loyalty, and love, Scar taught him to fight. Scar is a liar and a cheat and will stop at nothing to get what he feels rightfully belongs to him. And yet, as vile as Scar is, he's also the unintended teacher.

Ejiofor knew that deeper than his fury and his jealousy, Scar was more than just a bad guy. Scar was an instructor who made Simba and audiences examine themselves and Ejiofor’s performance underscores that. Does it feel good to give Scar his flowers? Of course not. I wouldn't spit on Scar even if he were on fire. But let’s face it, there would be no Lion King if Simba didn’t have to fight for his throne.

So to Scar and to all the bad guys who help us roar a little bit louder, thank you for the unintended lesson.

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