Arsenio Hall Talking During Interview
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Music Sermon: How 'The Arsenio Hall Show' Brought Black Music To Late Night

'The Arsenio Hall Show' gifted the culture with unforgettable, iconic moments, new catchphrases for the lexicon, and…a president?

#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.

In 1989, the late-night landscape was ruled by old white men who mimed golf swings when they landed jokes, and the only mainstream outlet to see your favorite hip-hop acts - or young urban acts period – was the one-year-old Yo! MTV Raps (or It’s Showtime at the Apollo, which required willing yourself to stay up until after Saturday Night Live).

And then came Arsenio Hall. We’ll put his recent out-of-touch and curmudgeonly remarks (you can delete tweets, but screen caps are forever) aside to remember that The Arsenio Hall Show was the first late night platform to bring black cool into America’s living rooms. Hall changed the late-night game, gave young black entertainers much-needed legitimacy, and warmed the TV world up for the slate of hip-hop influenced programming that was on the way, like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover. The show hit massive heights before a relatively quick burnout, but through its five-year run, Hall gifted the culture with unforgettable, iconic moments, new catchphrases for the lexicon, and…a president?

Let’s look at why Arsenio was the place to be for Gen Xers to “get busy” every night for five years.

In 1988, Hall filled in when Joan Rivers (who’d given him his first stand-up slot on The Tonight Show) abruptly walked off of her Fox talk show.
Very quickly, it was evident he was not following the traditional late-night formula, but had something special going. Guests were disarmed and at ease; it felt like watching friends chillin’ and chatting, instead of a formal interview. Viewers were eating it up, and the ratings reflected it.

LL COOL J – 1988
Little Baby L talks image, plays coy about his personal life, and licks his lips a lot.

Unfortunately for Fox execs, by the time they thought to offer Hall the show permanently, best friend Eddie Murphy had already tapped him for Coming to America, and the movie’s studio, Paramount, had locked him into a deal. A deal that included three movies and a syndicated late night show, which he’d executive produce.

The Arsenio Hall Show premiered on January 3, 1989. It was designed to feel like a party, and was widely described as the “hippest” thing on TV. “Hall’s invitation might read: Give me your hip MTV fans, your urban viewers, college students, the crowd that gravitates toward cable or the huddled masses that don’t watch TV at all,” remarked The Washington Post shortly after the show debuted. More important than that, however, was that Arsenio was looking to fill a hole for black entertainment specifically––and he knew there was a growing need because black culture was permeating pop culture, period. Explaining his vision in 1989, Hall highlighted the void. “Where does the urban contemporary audience see Bobby Brown, the number one pop – not R&B, but pop, that means white people bought it – crossover artist in America, who could not get on a talk show?”

Everything about The Arsenio Hall Show format reflected a 30 year-old (or 34 year-old, depending on who you believe) black man at the helm. Instead of a band, Arsenio had “The Posse.” Instead of a quiet, polite studio audience, there was “The Dog Pound” (named for Hall’s hometown Cleveland Brown’s “dogs”) who pumped their fists and barked - loudly - in lieu of clapping. Instead of a desk, Hall would be stretched out in an armchair with his Reebok-clad feet up on an ottoman. Or maybe even sitting on the ottoman. Instead of “We’ve got a great show for you tonight,” the program officially kicked off with “Let's. Get. Busy!” It really was like going to an exclusive lounge every night to hang out.

Also, the show was black. As hell. Early critics and even other comedians criticized Hall’s unabashed blackness in the show; his use of slang, his style, his relaxed format, his ease with the guests. He was undeterred. “The critics say Arsenio is maybe too urban to succeed; a studio head may say it,” Hall told the New York Times during his first season. “But the biggest mistake a black man can make creatively is not to be himself.” That’s what quickly set him apart from the other shows. Where everyone else was competing for the same older viewers, Hall immediately locked in the 18-34 demographic. Aside from the show’s energy, the biggest difference was that he booked acts other shows wouldn’t touch. Aside from Yo! MTV Raps, no other show was putting hip-hop on the air – even some existing prominent black-owned media platforms. “Hip Hop gave me a career,” Hall told Vlad TV in 2014. “...I was bringing this (whole new culture) into the living rooms of people who could safely watch it and get to understand it, and that’s really why it worked. Don Cornelius is an idol. Oprah, an idol. But they didn’t like hip-hop. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me…because I got all of that.”

And indeed, Hall always had all of the hip-hop acts.

KOOL MOE DEE – 1989

NWA - 1990
Before performing, Hall talked to the group about their infamous drama with the FBI.

WEST COAST RAP ALL STARS – 1990
This was the only live TV performance of the supergroup‘s “All in the Same Gang.”

Providing a performance platform wasn’t the only aspect that made Hall’s show unique. He was also giving acts couch time, so we saw a conversational side of these artists beyond the standard promo spiel that we couldn’t really see anywhere else.

ICE-T - 1990
Ice-T talked to Arsenio about gang violence in Los Angeles, including speaking in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, who he felt hadn’t been paying attention. “The gang situation in Los Angeles has been here twenty years. And then a lady got killed in Westwood – you know, a non-black. Somebody out of the neighborhood. Then all of a sudden, there were 387 murders that year and 70,000 gang members; they didn’t join that night!”

2Pac – 1993
A clearly…lit Pac came on Arsenio to talk Poetic Justice, including his oft-repeated and later debunked story that Janet Jackson demanded he be tested for HIV before she’d participate in any love scenes. “I was like ‘No, I’m not taking the test. If I’ma get to really lay with her, we can take four tests…she really wanna be sure.’ But other than that, it’s disrespectful to me.”

The show’s fresh perspective and authenticity were so successful, six months into the first season Arsenio was #2 behind Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, beating David Letterman’s Late Night. White critics and TV execs weren’t warm to Arsenio or his show, and didn’t understand its success (they were equally confused a couple of years later with the success of Fox’s urban line up). They even protested that the show was too black, and it was unfair because they didn’t get the references and felt left out (funny how that’s still happening when black folks see a need and create something dope). Hall’s response was, to paraphrase, “They’ll be aight.” After all, black people have been adjusting to all white entertainment for…ever, “…like I did when I watched my first Bob Hope special, my first Three Stooges…My whole culturalization requires that I understand everything that America is,” Hall told the Washington Post, and he truly did present black culture as part of America in a real way for five years.

As the show hit its stride, it was the destination for all our favorite acts because they knew they were at home. That comfort level showed up in their performance.

BBD -1991
The best performance of “Poison” ever. Shout out to the Str8 Ahead dancers; the reason BBD was so live.

HEAVY D – 1989
You’re at home chanting “Go, Heavy” with the Dog Pound, aren’t you?

TRIBE CALLED QUEST & LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL – 1992
Busta Rhymes' first TV performance. The star power shining all up and through.

And it wasn’t just the hip-hop acts; Arsenio was key in breaking R&B acts as well.

Mariah Carey’s first official TV performance? Arsenio.

MARIAH CAREY – 1990

En Vogue’s first TV performance? Arsenio.

EN VOGUE - 1990

TLC’s first TV performance? Most likely Arsenio. But Babyface definitely called Hall directly to book them.

TLC – 1991

Beyond the young and hip moments, Arsenio also made sure our legends had a home and space to be heard.

MILES DAVIS – 1989
Davis was in poor health and his voice barely audible, but Hall gave him ample couch time after his performance, keeping the convo going as though he could hear Miles loud and clear.

SAMMY DAVIS JR - 1989
Arsenio would give dedicated time to entertainers instead of rushing them through segments. Sammy Davis Jr. had already been on the couch for about 15 minutes when he decided, impromptu, that he wanted to perform a number (he’d initially said he didn’t want to sing during his appearance). He then returned to the couch telling Hall, “I say this to you on a one to one basis: you ever need me, you got me, for the rest of my life.”

JAMES BROWN
The Godfather was on Arsenio’s show multiple times.

PRINCE - 1991
Hall turned the entire program over to Prince twice during the show’s original run.

And on a non-music note, where else would you get Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson on the same couch? Greatness. (1990)

Arsenio proved that the landscape could be broader than the very formulaic, mildly edgy space that had been late-night. The biggest moment that drove this point home was presidential candidate William Jefferson Clinton, who was having some trouble in the polls, jamming on the sax.

BILL CLINTON - 1992

The performance is noted in the annals of TV and political history as not only a turning point in Clinton’s campaign, but in how candidates campaigned moving forward. At the time, Clinton was criticized for letting his proverbial hair down that way; detractors said it wasn’t “presidential.” But it helped him win the young, urban vote (and possibly kicked off the whole “First Black President” mess that we should all forget). It must have been some kind of presidential, because he became the president.

Hall also permeated pop culture at large. His monologue segment “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm’’ was flipped into a No. 1 dance hit by C+C Music Factory…

...and the Dog Pound’s infectious barking (which morphed, over time, from a full “Woof Woof” to something like a “Woo Woo” or a “Whoot Whoot”) apparently inspired Tag Team’s tootsie-roll-inducing classic “Whoomp! There It Is.” Group members Cecil “DC” Glen and Steve “Roll’n” Gibson have credited The Arsenio Hall Show for the idea, “People had been saying ‘There it is’ forever. Everybody in Arsenio Hall’s television audience used to do the “Woof” chant. We put that together with the ‘There it is’ dance-floor chant we were hearing at the club.

In 1992, Carson stepped down from the late-night throne and threw the space into a warring frenzy for audience and ratings. Jay Leno ascended to Carson’s spot at The Tonight Show, and Dave Letterman, angry he didn’t get the coveted gig, jumped ship from NBC to CBS. Hall, who was syndicated and not locked in to a specific network or time, was left vulnerable. NBC and CBS started pressuring markets that carried The Arsenio Hall Show to drop him or change his time slot. The Tonight Show was going for a young demo with Leno, and started booking guests that were usually in Arsenio’s domain. Leno, who had also moved up to an earlier time slot, created an irreverent, who-knows-what-might-happen vibe for his new The Late Show – an older (and whiter) version of Hall’s energy.

In ‘93 Hall’s ratings started taking a hit, and in 1994 he wrapped the show. For the final episode, Queen Latifah asked Hall to let her produce a segment, but he couldn’t be involved. She put together one of the greatest rap cyphers ever seen on television – Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Naughty By Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Fu-Schnickens, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Gang Starr, Das EFX, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS One and Mad Lion - to surprise Hall and get busy one last time.

And LMAO at Ghostface shouting “The black man is God” over and over again at the end. This is what happens when you put Wu Tang on live TV.

In 2014, Hall made a short-lived return to the late-night scene, but it wasn’t hittin’ the same way this time. First, he’s much older. And while hip-hop has gotten older, too, what made The Arsenio Hall show fresh and different was its young energy. Second, he wasn’t offering something special and exclusive anymore. In the same VLAD TV interview mentioned earlier, he noted the difference in the landscape. “The hard part now is, you can turn on Fallon, or Kimmel, or any Jimmy… They’ve all got rappers. And they might sit and talk to the big ones, so I don’t do anything unique now.”

Still, his original run is more than enough to forgive later shortfalls. We appreciate all that you gave to and did for the culture, Arsenio. Just stay off twitter, please, so we can continue to enjoy it.

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The 25 Best Latinx Albums Of 2019

As we inch closer to the end of another memorable chapter in music, the Spanish-language gap gets bigger by the day. To anyone who believed reggaeton's second coming or Latin trap was a trend were gravely mistaken as artists across the diaspora found success on the charts and in the streaming world. Artists like Bad Bunny, Rosalía and J Balvin continued to thrive off last year's releases while dropping memorable singles (and joint projects). Others like Sech broke the mold for the marriage of hip-hop and reggaeton with Panamanian pride. Legends like Mark Anthony and Ivy Queen reminded us of their magic while rising artists like Rico Nasty, DaniLeigh and Melii provided major star power and creative visuals for their tunes. Latinx music has continued to push boundaries and the same goes for our list.

Enjoy our ranking of the 25 best Latinx albums of 2019.

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Pictured (L-R): WurlD and Sarz
Courtesy of Management

Meet Sarz and WurlD: The Nigerian Producer-Singer Powerhouse Showing Africa’s Sonic Range

There’s a slow infiltration of sultry, soulful, lo-fi music in afrobeats—and the latest from Nigerian producer Sarz and his fellow countryman and singer-songwriter, WurlD, is just a taste of how the scene is evolving. Before landing at No. 1 on Nigeria’s iTunes Albums Chart, I Love Girls With Trobul was a long time coming. Backed by Sarz’ fresh instrumentals, WurlD flexes his songwriting chops to talk about all things love and lust in this eight-track EP. The project is a cohesive narrative of the ups and downs people face when grappling with relationships.

On the origin story of how this project came to be, the duo notes that a mutual friend of theirs made the initial connection for them to explore working together. Sarz, born Osaretin Osabuohien, then sent over a few beats, with WurlD delivering with 2018’s “Trobul” in less than 24 hours. Sarz says he was so in love with the song that this collaboration needed to go beyond one track. They both describe the foundation of the EP as “seamless,” and for WurlD, this was one of the few times he made a decision to work on a project with someone without overthinking it. It just felt right.

I Love Girls With Trobul is the duo’s take on balance while pushing the culture forward. WurlD comes with his relatable, minimal lyrics (he’s also worked with the likes of BOB, Trinidad James, Mario, Walshy Fire and more during his time in Atlanta) while Sarz (a chart-topping producer who’s had Niniola and Wizkid grace his beats) delivers trendsetting instrumentals. There’s a song on I Love Girls With Trobul for everybody—for those on the continent and in the diaspora alike.

“Mad” is the newest music video to drop from the EP. A continuation of the storyline that the collaborators showed us in their previous single “Ego: Nobody Wins,” we take a look at the dysfunctional insecurities of a relationship between WurlD, born Sadiq Onifade, and his love interest (played by Bolu Aduke Kanmi). The relatability of the visual and the song will surely get you in your feelings.

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VIBE: Sarz, what kind of sonic journey did you intend to take listeners through in this EP?

Sarz: I was trying to make something that suits WurlD’s sound, makes him comfortable enough to express himself, and also isn’t alien to the afrobeats space. I was also trying to push the narrative with the sound because that’s what I’m known for. I’ve always been that producer in Nigeria that doesn’t really follow trends and does stuff that other producers use as a template to make music. This is just one of those projects where it doesn’t sound like anything else in the afrobeats space right now. This time next year, you’ll hear so many songs that sound like songs off this project.

How would you describe the creative process of working with each other?

WurlD: We had to trust each other—I was very open. It was all about both of us meeting in the middle. There were times where Sarz would advise me to tweak the conversation in my lyrics. Another thing we focused on was bringing Africa along as much as possible. He’s Nigeria at its core. I learned how to create music in America, though I was born in Nigeria—so I know the culture. I lived there until I was a teenager. We understood each other and I was open to the idea; we were both determined to do whatever we needed to do to make the best project. One of our biggest challenges making this was that we were both in different places throughout the process, so the ongoing support we got from “Trobul” kept us alive. We recorded the first series of songs in L.A., the body of it in Atlanta and we then finished it in Lagos earlier this year.

Sarz: We had to go back and forth with ideas because his musical background and experiences are different than mine. There were certain songs that we had to go back and forth with to make it more relatable and right for the project.

Why is a project like I Love Girls With Trobul needed in the popular African music scene now?

Sarz: From my end, I feel like when you’re genuine with your art and speaking your truth, people will always gravitate to that—because there’s someone out there that feels the same way you feel. I don’t know who’s out there who feels the same way, but judging from the reviews and feedback we’ve been getting, there are so many people that we’re touching right now with this.

WurlD: I like the idea of collaboration. I wanted to shine a light on the importance of collaborating with producers. Living in the States for so many years, I saw this happen every day. I noticed how there are different ways to collaborate and how in general there’s not a lot of love for producers. I hope this inspires other producers to put more value in themselves.

Wurld, what inspired you to be so vulnerable with the stories you share in the EP?

WurlD: I feel like when I’m creating music is when I’m the most vulnerable. Music is communication—people go through things. I like the idea of empowering people through words where a sad song can actually lift you up. If it’s done in a happy space, you don’t feel so sad after all. I can’t really explain how I balance that but it’s a free, caring space. I care about the listener. I understand how difficult it is to empower yourself through a heartbreak. It’s being vulnerable, but it’s to be free and accept a loss. I understand the need for people to feel empowered to get up and keep going, so that makes it easy for me to tap into my vulnerability and to keep the audience lifted.

Sarz, what inspired you to conjure a sinister, dark sound with “Mad”?

Sarz: There’s nothing like that in the African space right now. That was the last record we made, and I felt like the project needed a little edge. After working on a few records, “Mad” was the standout one. We just knew this is what we’ve been looking for—it was just me trying to make a global soundtrack. I feel like anyone, anywhere in the world can relate to “Mad,” even though it’s afrobeats.

Walk me through its music video. What should viewers keep in mind while watching?

WurlD: We wanted to stay close to the conversation of the song. And “Mad” goes through different emotions with an afro-dance element. The key part in the record is how I’m dealing with my issues and I’m dealing with yours, but at the end of the day we get mad and we’ll make up. This is an everyday situation. We fight, we come together. And we wanted to highlight that in the video. With “Ego,” we were disconnected. With “Mad,” we give it a try when you break up to make up. The making up part is not easy, so there’s a lot of highlighting the highs and lows of those emotions to get past what made you mad. The dance elements highlight African culture and we wanted to keep it simple, stylish and straight to the point.

Sarz: With this project, we were really just trying to do things how we feel. And the project itself sounds like a story from the first song to the last. We wanted to try and keep that visually and interpret it as much as possible so people understand that journey with the visual.

What’s next from the project?

WurlD: I feel like this project we created is the first of its kind coming out of this region in Africa. We hope to inspire and show the rest of the world the necessity of range. Africa is not just one thing, and there’s so much more that we have to offer. We’re planning on doing more visuals because we feel strongly that these records deserve A1 narratives and visuals that push the culture forward and shines a light on African art.

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Jenny Regan

NEXT: Kemba Makes The Song Cry On His Painful Masterpiece ‘Gilda’

Kemba doesn’t look like the stereotypical rapper. He's not loaded with expensive jewelry, a large entourage, "exotic" women, and stylish clothes. The budding MC is reserved. Remember the quiet, artsy, yet cool kid in high school who didn’t put on a thick shield of toughness, but you knew he’d fight when invited to? That’s Kemba, the seemingly reticent kid moving to the beat inside of his headphones.

It’s a dreary Thursday afternoon near the end of September. Exactly six days prior to this date (Sept. 28), the Bronx native released his sobering album titled Gilda, the follow-up to 2016's Negus album. But even in the face of album release parties and the fame that comes with having a record deal, the Republic artist refuses to put on the clichéd mask of a rapper.

The regular degular kid arrives solo, and on time, at VIBE’s Times Square office. Despite his mother’s death still fresh on his mind, Kemba seems to be in great spirits. He’s generous with posing for pictures, calmly standing where the photographer asks him to. While Kemba is totally alert, his eyes hold a glare that shows he’s pondering some valuable lessons recently learned.

One listen to Gilda, named after his mother who died of a stroke, and it’s clear that the bubbling MC is adept at sorting through thoughts and unearthing lessons from deep-rooted pain.

“I’m just getting into the habit of speaking about things and not holding anything in,” Kemba says when asked about extracting lessons from discomfort. “I haven’t had a lot of revelations yet. I’m still getting accustomed to recognizing my thoughts, and feelings, sharing my thoughts, and looking at the feeling wheel, and identifying all of the things that that situation makes me feel.”

Kebma began his rap career as YC the Cynic. With Eminem being a big influence on his early rap style, Kemba’s lyrical ambition is evident on early mixtapes like 2010’s You’re Welcome and 2011’s Fall Forward, where he’s rapping over a mix of industry instrumentals and original beats. Kemba was also doing a lot of open mics around the Rotten Apple, tapping into his gift of wordplay and building his fanbase through an old-school path of impressing local crowds. His burgeoning career leveled-up after being discovered by Queens MC, Homeboy Sandman, who introduced Kemba to Hot 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg.

But as Kemba found his footing in the underground scene and came into his own as an artist, he decided to trade in his YC the Cynic tag for a handle more befitting to the picture he wanted to paint of himself.

“I try to separate myself from constructs. I never really had pride in my name [YC the Cynic]," Kemba recalls. "I always felt detached from my real name. So I just wanted to choose something for myself.”

“I wanted it to sound youthful, like it had african roots to it, and to sound strong," he continues. “And I really just searched a bunch of names. I went through names for about a year. Like YC the Cynic, you hear it, and you can think of the type of person that would have that name. I just wanted a name that, to where I could do whatever [musically].”

Fast forward to 2019, Kemba’s departure from the battle rhymes on Gilda is his best project to date. The album moves through a series of revelations, family issues, and takes listeners on a journey of a young man trudging through hardships.

One week after the release of Gilda, Kemba sat with VIBE for a discussion about regrets, finding meaning from traumatic situations, and controlling his narrative.

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VIBE: Gilda sounds like a project where you’re exposing a bunch of lessons that you recently learned. Kemba: I feel like it led to that. It started with me examining my life in a way that I haven’t before. It started with me not being able to process my mom’s death. At some point I started to write again and it was like, “Oh shit, this is how I feel.” But I didn’t know that until I wrote it. This is the only way I’m going to find out about myself, so let me just do this. Let me think about my childhood and write. And then at some point that became me examining myself, reading back what I wrote. I’m going to therapy now, and I’m figuring out different ways to understand myself. But that started from me realizing there was more to it than writing.

I sense that you have some regrets about the relationships in your family? It’s hard because a lot of the relationships in my family are so broken. There are a lot of family members that I love and talk to on a regular basis, but there are still some that I do not know if it will ever be repaired. And I realized that as you get older it becomes harder to link with people, and you look up and it’s been a year since you saw them. Just spending time gets really hard as you get older. But that’s the goal.

Do you wish you spent more time with your mom? I think my mom is like a whole different relationship. I wish I would’ve been there with my mom. And I did spend time with my mom. I wish it would’ve been more quality time. Now I know the difference between spending time and quality time. I wish I’d known more about her, her history, and her upbringing. So yes, there are regrets.

Has your family heard the album? A lot of my family has heard the album, and I’m pleasantly surprised that the acceptance has been as good as it has. I imagine that a lot of the people that it was about didn’t hear it. But everybody that I heard from said they were proud. Some cried at some point and said they love me. And that’s a good of an acceptance that I get from them. There’s this theme of controlling your narrative throughout your music too. How young were you when you realized that that’s important?

There's a lot of talk of controlling your narrative in your music. Most 23-years-old are not thinking about controlling their narrative. When did this become a thing for you? I can’t remember when I had that idea that that was important but I do know that in general that if you don’t control your narrative someone else will. There’s a laundry list of evidence, from the history to America to the history of hip-hop, where people don’t really stake claim, and they get the value to the point where the story is up for grabs. Like right now, for as long as I have lived it’s been recognized that Kool Herc is the Godfather of Hip-Hop and as the story goes on the story gets misconstrued. And other people take claim. So controlling your narrative is super important.

Are you into activism? Your album Negus gives me that feel. That’s how I came up. I came up being part of a community organization called Rebel Diaz. They showed me the way of the social activism. We lead and organize a bunch of marches. We went down to Ferguson,down to Baltimore for Freddie Gray. I was doing that a lot, but music took more and more of my time. But I would love to get back to that. Those are my brothers. I look to them for advice often.

What will Kemba’s story read like? I’ve thought about it. I don’t know the exact answer. I just know the things that I love to do. I want to be a part of making incredible art as long as I live. Making my own art, and helping people with their art. Whether that means creating music, helping other people create music, or just executive produce projects, producing, writing for people. I just want to be involved in art, and more involved in social service.

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