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VICELAND

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

"The byproduct of this show is going to be good because people are going to have role models, they are going to see real stories of people who look like them striving to make it, and making it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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