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Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

The Genie In Broadway's 'Aladdin' Is A Nod To Jazz Great Cab Calloway

Major Attaway (pictured above) who portrays the beloved Genie talked about the difference between his performance and Robin Williams'

It's like night and day.

Inside The New Amsterdam Theater, Major Attaway's presence is inescapable. Embodying the role of the beloved Genie in Disney's Aladdin, the Texas native sets the tone for the audience by dismantling the fourth wall and bringing them into the fictitious world of Agrabah. His voice booms, he's light on his feet and his high kick can strike lightning.

But when Attaway is off stage, his robust voice lowers to almost a whisper. His presence, still warm and welcoming, has an added layer of gentleness that's divorced from his performance. Attaway is a three-part entertainer: singer, dancer, and actor, but when it's just one-on-one, he's soft-spoken and tender often requiring you to lean in to fully hear him speak.

In Manhattan's Milk Studios, Attaway sat with Vibe and several other media outlets to discuss the Genie--who's equal parts Aladdin's best friend, moral compass, and ultimate wingman, as well as the true inspiration behind one of Disney's most enchanting figures.

As a little kid, you made a wish. What did you wish for that you’ve seen come true now into adulthood?
Major Attaway: Oh that’s easy. Well, when I was 10 years old, I’m not sure of the actual age. I know I was sitting in the ninth row at the New Amsterdam Theater where I saw The Lion King on Broadway for the first time. I said to my mother as I was squealing from the edge of my seat 'This is what I want to do’ I knew I liked to sing and I knew I wanted to do something in this business but I wasn’t sure. Seeing The Lion King made it very clear to me, so now every day it’s a full circle moment because I work in the New Amsterdam Theater, and every performance I make sure to give a little love to whoever’s sitting in that chair just in case I see someone who looks a little like me.

Tell me the feeling you had when you saw The Lion King
I knew that I wanted to perform. I had been in the Texas Boys Choir, started singing in church and I had been learning new languages because of the Texas Boys Choir. We learned to sing phonetically in German, Italian, and all these different things. But The Lion King was the closest thing to me that I saw. There was absolutely nothing like it because even on TV there was only so many shows I could watch. I was watching UPN or something like that, but The Lion King gave me all of it. It gave me singing. It gave me acting. It gave me a story that I already loved. A story that was reimagined and the puppets the majestic visual experience that I got, it just told me what I knew all the time that imagination--that was always hounding me--I can use it and I can funnel it into a way that I can make a living as well as help people at the same time. It gave me all of that, so much.

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And the importance of this role to you during Black History Month?
Oh my! Well, the version of the Genie that I play is based on Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, because the original design of the genie character was this. When Robin Williams was given the part he changed their idea for the character. So, I get to be a song and dance man on one of the oldest stages in Broadway. Where Stepin-Fetchit may have graced the stage, but couldn’t come in the front door. And so every once in a while I meet a certain person at the stage door and they say thank you because I haven’t seen someone like me up there.

Not only that, I’m the first voice and the first face that anybody sees when they’re coming to see that show. So I have to represent, and I understand that not only am I giving someone their first Broadway memory, it’s their first live performance memory. You know, a lot of people see the film and say 'Who can do what Robin Williams does?’ I don’t do what Robin Williams does. He’s a stand-up comedian. I am full, three-part entertainer. So that’s what you’re getting when you come to see me and I’m showing you that a man of my size, and where I’ve come from, and how hard I’ve had to work that you can do it. It’s possible.

How do you keep that magic going? How do you keep that fire in your belly?
Lots of things can attribute to it. You have to take care of yourself outside of the work because if its all that you are, then it’s gonna drain you. You have to know how to take mental breaks. In telling of the story in itself, I have a unique situation with the Genie because I am required to break the fourth wall. I am required to check-in to the energy of the audience because I am the narrator as well as one of the characters so
I have to make sure that I set the tone of energy. So I feel like its easier for who’s ever playing the Genie because we don’t just have to check in with the actors around us we have to talk the audience. So if their energy is up and down I can affect that. I can push against it, I can pull back to let them catch up or something like

The Genie himself, I ask myself different questions daily to keep the characters fresh. You see me come out of the lamp and offer him three wishes. No one asks me who was my last master? How did I obtain my Genie powers in the first place? What was I doing right before I rubbed the lamp? What does it look like in the lamp? These are questions that I can ask myself to keep my reaction to Aladdin fresh. Different ways to add to the story so there’s depth in me answering his questions that I answer every day.

Will Smith is going to be playing the genie in the live-action remake.
Oh, I’m so excited.

Have you spoken to him? And if you haven’t, do you have any pointers you could give to him?
They’re two separate entities. Yes, they’re both under the Disney family but Disney theatricals and Disney films are living their own separate lives. Now, what I would say if I got to meet him, it wouldn’t be about things I could tell him because the grind I do is different. The way he put together the character he had a certain timeline and form these things and it was done. Mine is, I’m telling that same story every day so I have to find nuances that keep it new and fresh for me.

I would love to meet him and have him watch my performance. That would be awesome, but other than that I think that I’m just excited that you just mentioned mine and his name in the same breath. That’s the best part about that question to me. [Laughs]

After the show, there’s a standing ovation for you, clear as day. How does that make you feel?
Grateful. I’m there to serve the moment and to tell the story. I’m just glad they enjoy it, to be honest. I understand how many people want to be here and the hunger is so real for so many people who want to do this job. Every moment I’m just grateful to be in this space and when they respond in that way and stand on their feet and clap. An ovation is not something that is expected and I don’t think its something that needs to be given every time just because I’ve completed a song or just because I’ve completed the number you enjoy. If I’ve moved you then you should move. If not, that’s okay and I respect that.

Talk a little bit about your hustle as a black person on Broadway.
I will tell you something specific to my career that has to do with me being a black person in musical theater.  I realized at a young age, with all of the characters that were available to me for me to play, I’m telling history stories and I might have to be a slave. If I’m telling a fantasy story, I can be anything I want. If I want to tell someone’s story who has been black and lived a black life, there’s going to be some hardships at some point. There’s no question. There’s going to be something I have to tell or live through on stage.

I auditioned for everything but sometimes I would be more excited to receive the opportunity to play something that is based in fantasy because when you have to do that over and over again you have to do the work. One way or another you have to find your way to that emotional place, and so I spent one year of my life where I did Rag Time and Rent and then Rag Time again and I said ‘Oh that’s about six months of funerals where the black man I’m playing has to lose.'

Of course, there are lessons learned and things like that, but given the choice, in the long run, I love playing the Genie. Yes he may be in shackles in doing the work, but he’s the most powerful being in the place and he will always be. That is a plus for me as a black man.

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Interview: Suave House Founder Tony Draper Links With Celebs Like 2 Chainz, G Herbo and Nick Cannon To Feed Their Cities

The harrowing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted Black communities across the United States with cities like Chicago being among the hardest hit. Throughout the year, artists from the city have stepped up and held socially distanced food drives and PPE donations across the city’s South and West sides. With his deep ties to Chicago since the early 90s, Suave House Records founder/entrepreneur Tony Draper, alongside NBA veteran Ricky Davis, made the Chi’ their next stop as part of the nationwide Feed Your City Challenge this past October 17th at the Pullman Park Community Center.

The chilly, yet bright and sunny Saturday saw hundreds of people drive through the parking lot of the complex, receiving groceries from the many volunteers, gathered from across the city. Masked up with PPE in the trenches with the civilians were local natives and celebrity supporters like Chitown’s Grammy winning producer/music executive No ID, rap star G-Herbo, new rapper Queen Key, NBA star Jabari Parker to media/music entertainer Nick Cannon. Draper and Davis were handing off items and loading boxes of farm-fresh produce and meats in the trunk of cars, and offloading the 95,000 pounds of food to feed 7,000 residents. While they were not in attendance, Common with Jhene Aiko and Social Justice Collective donated funds for the free groceries.

“You can’t lead the people until you feed the people. We’re out here in the community in a real way. People always talk about what’s going on in Chicago and these are the things going on in Chicago. Positive things for the community during a time like this. People coming together and it’s a wonderful event,” said Cannon.

For Draper, bringing the Feed Your City Challenge to Chicago and being able to pull it off successfully was crucial because October 17th, marks the 24th anniversary of the death of one of Chi’s most influential DJs, Rapmaster Pinkhouse, who passed away in 1996. “It feels like myself and my partner [Ricky] Davis coming to Chicago and partnering with Common, No ID, Jhene Aiko, Nick Cannon, G-Herbo, Jay Allen, [local FM radio] Power 92 and Pat Edwards was a sign from God that it’s meant to happen on this day. Even though Pinkhouse is gone, he’s still influencing the south side of Chicago and he’s still sending us blessings. We had to pull it off, we had to,” Draper said with conviction. 

Meanwhile, Power 92.3’s DJ Pharris, DJ Nehpets, DJ Commando, DJ Amaris and Hot Rod were on the 1s and 2s while Parker, Hot Rod, G-Herbo, and community activists Joey G and Nico Naismith played basketball with the kids. A nonprofit Hoop Bus was set up with a small hoop with Black Lives Matter symbols and the names of victims who were killed by police officers. 

G-Herbo, who has been volunteering his time to the kids of Chicago throughout 2020 says that events like this are important to build and strengthen Black unity across the city. “It’s beyond just being able to feed and provide, it’s allowing people to feel unity in the city. This is the city coming together and a lot of important and powerful people coming from the city, all walks of life coming together for a positive reason and that’s what it’s all about.” When asked if this event defied the stigma of Chicagoans not being unified, Herbo exclaimed, “Absolutely! We unified right now and it’s only gon’ get better, so we’re just trying to lead by example and make this normal. This is not just an event, this gotta be the normal for guys like myself and for the city.”

And the people who showed up to receive their free groceries were more than appreciative. Takara, a mother from the Southside of Chicago says that while she found out about the food drive at the last minute,“It’s a lot of food out here, a lot of good people out here and it’s something that we need. Events like this are very necessary and it’s filling the need for families who can’t feed their children during these times. I wish I could have volunteered and done something more, but we need this.”

In a one-on-one with VIBE, the legendary Tony Draper talks about his connections to Chicago, the importance and impact of the Feed Your City Challenge, the role celebrities play in activism, and more. 

VIBE: Earlier you shared that Oct. 17th was also the day that Rapmaster Pinkhouse passed away. For the younger readers who might not know who Rapmaster Pinkhouse is, could you share who he was and why he was so important to Chicago?

Draper: For young people that don't understand how music was heard back then, there was no social media [in the early 90s], there was no Instagram, so you had to get your record to the hottest person in the city. That person had to make a decision about whether it was good or not. And if that person touched your record in Chicago, that person would spread, it was automatic. That’s what happened to a young Tony Draper with 8Ball & MJG’s first albums. He put his hands around it and he exposed it to the Chicago market. Every time I think about Chicago, I always think about Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse was the main reason why I even came to Chicago.

Talk about that. What was Chicago like for you when you first came here?

Coming to Chicago was a very interesting moment for me because when I came, I had my hat cocked a certain type of way and I didn’t know the rules and regulations. And he told me, “Tony, man you gotta keep that hat straight (laughs). And I kept it straight ever since. So, for me, doing my journey as a young Black man from the inner city, raised by a single parent, establishing Suave House at 16 years old, seeing what I went through to establish [the company], and make it a force to be reckoned with. That was an accomplishment, but also I wanted to touch people I knew understood the music and understood where I was coming from and the importance of a young Black man that was a true, independent CEO and giving me the avenue to get my music heard. I’m from Memphis, raised in Houston, but Chicago is Suave House’s biggest market to this date. They supported everything Suave House did and I wanted to bless them [with the Feed Your City Challenge], the same way they blessed me.

With the conversation within the music business revolving around Black Lives Matter and supporting Black communities, what do you think it’ll take to get many of these CEO and executives from the major labels to support these communities like what you and many of the artists have been doing across the country?

I think they have to be involved with people they’re not comfortable with. Stop giving money to these organizations you think is giving the money to Black people, because they’re not. Nobody is holding these organizations accountable. Do business with somebody that has their finger on the pulse. A person that you know is in the music business that has been very successful in the business. Like right now, the Feed Your City Challenge, we’re in our ninth city. We’ve had eight of the top music artists host these cities without funding from the parent companies. [The artists] are giving the money themselves. Jhene Aiko gave money herself. Nick Cannon, himself. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz…Pee from Quality Control. 

Pee was on vacation in Mexico and he took a private jet back to Atlanta just to attend Feed Your City in Atlanta. He didn’t have to do that, but he did because he cares about where he’s from. He cares about the area. He wants to take [talent] from the area, but he also wants to give back to that community. See, white people want to come and exploit your community, but don’t want to build a library over there, never build a basketball court, never build anything. When an artist is dead, they say ahhh aahh ummm. If you wanted to demonstrate good character, you would have said, ‘I made a lot of money off that artist. Let me do something for that community as a token of appreciation for birthing that particular artist.’

I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before.

And you’ll never see it unless I do it and I am going to do it. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I’m going to every city that has blessed me and fed my family because every time I feed myself, I feed my family, my loved ones, it comes from my fans. My fans gave me the opportunity by buying my records. I had a dream, I had a drive, but without the opportunity, you might not have heard of Tony Draper. So, I’m always appreciative of people that have helped me, that’s why I want to help them. I’m in the best place I could ever be in my life. I’m 49 years old, I’m successful, I’m good. Bro, you want to know what makes me happy? Giving to somebody else. There’s another star out there that’s hoping and praying that they could get an opportunity and if I could give them that opportunity, I’ll give it to them. I don’t relish in the attention; I relish in the accomplishment. Let me help somebody. And if I help them and they become successful, they don’t owe me a quarter. I won’t sign them to a management deal or nothing. I just want you to acknowledge it and pass it on. See, we got to learn how to pass it on.

With the timing of this event brought on by the pandemic, how do you feel about it all?

I think it was God’s mission. With COVID that’s really unfortunate, a lot of people lost their lives during this pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their homes, their properties. My heart goes out to them. But if me and Ricky Davis can put a smile on a mother’s face, a father’s face and feed their children, that’s all I need. I remember me and my mother going to churches and food banks, walking with free government cheese, powdered eggs and we was happy. We were so happy, smiling and grateful. I think without that, I don’t think we would have made it to the following week. So, I’m always thankful for everything God blessed me with. I don’t think I’m special. I think that I had a plan and I stuck to my plan and made it happen.

Suave House has had a lot of artists who have always been outspoken about social and political issues, [similar to like an] Ice Cube recently. Considering that, and what you’re doing with these artists for the Feed Your City Challenge, do you think that the role of the celebrity today is to get in front of these issues or to fall back and support the people who're already doing the work?

I think it’s a choice. For me, I’m not a city official, I’m not a politician. I’m more comfortable with doing and getting my hands dirty on the ground. If I was in Chicago building houses for people, I would actually be there. I wouldn’t [just] send no money or send a crew there. I would be there. That’s how I feel blessed. I feel blessed by actually talking to the people and them seeing me out there distributing groceries. I feel good when a person drives up in their car and they pop their trunk and say ‘Draper?! You putting groceries in my car?!’ And they may be happy about ‘Space Age Pimpin’’ or ‘I’m So Tired of Ballin’’ or whatever, but just the mere fact that they were happy about me putting groceries in their car meant more to me than anything else. I think it’s a choice you make as an individual.

For a lot of people, some celebrities end up causing harm because their celebrity and actions might overshadow the actual issue.

You know what though? Without you being a celebrity, you might not be heard. So why not use that platform to be heard? I think LeBron James is phenomenal. I think Ice Cube is phenomenal. You don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him for speaking his mind and trying to get something for Black people. Nobody else did it! Nobody else took the initiative to write a Black America contract and present it to both [Biden and Trump] camps. So, I think that was a phenomenal move, whether I agree with it or not, it was still a phenomenal move. We got to stop with all this goddamn talking and do some action.

Draper and Davis’s Feed Your City Challenge will be arriving in Compton, California as their next stop on November 21.

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Interview: T.I. Talks Activism, Verzuz Battle, And His Desire To Produce A Biopic On His Life Before Fame

Although Tip "T.I." Harris has earned some very respectable stripes as an emcee for his successful rap career, the self-proclaimed “King of the South” moniker really began to take true form once he stepped into his community activism calling. He’s acted in blockbuster films opposite Denzel Washington, Paul Rudd and Kevin Hart, but his willingness to speak truth to power has shown an unwavering commitment to being on the good side of history, as opposed to choosing silence to secure a spot on the good side of Hollywood.

During this recent conversation, Tip talks about his upcoming Verzuz battle with Jeezy, politics, the Trap Music Museum, and his desire to make his TV/film directorial debut.

Be sure to check out his newest album, L.I.B.R.A available on all streaming platforms.

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Ziggy Marley's First Time Voting In America

No more long talking from politicians. Today, the people have their say at the ballot box. Judging by the number of voters who showed up early this year, the 2020 election is going to smash all records for voter participation. With a deadly pandemic, wildfires, floods, economic pressure, and a struggle for survival playing out from the tweets to the streets, the stakes have never been higher.

If you're reading this right now and you haven't voted yet, it's not too late. Get up get out and let your voice be heard. As Samantha Smith recently discussed on her IG Live, this year's election is too important to sit out.

Snoop Dogg will be voting for the first time this year—and he's not the only one. Ziggy Marley voted for the first time this year also and documented the process on social media. "I decided to vote and I wondered to myself why," Ziggy wrote on his IG. "Then I thought about those who came before, the price they paid. In part, I am voting in honor of them and to honor them, to not belittle their many sacrifices and struggles with my high jaded righteousness and indifference. Many brothers and sisters from numerous backgrounds and origins marched, bled, and died to give people like me basic rights in 🇺🇸 , the right to be treated like a human being, the right to vote."

As the eldest son of the Robert Nesta Marley aka the King of Reggae, Ziggy is part of a mighty musical legacy, but his father is more than a musical legend.  The new film Freedom Fighter—part of the 75th anniversary series "Bob Marley Legacy"—examines Marley as a symbol of human rights with a voice more powerful than any politician.

Ziggy has continued his father's musical mission as a solo artist and part of the Grammy-winning family group Melody Makers. His 2018 album, Rebellion Rises opens with a song entitled "See Them Fake Leaders," leaving no doubt about his views on the institutions of government. Still, Ziggy remains engaged in the political process, doing his part and encouraging others to do the same.

"Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others thought, 'Voting rights? Civil rights? Who cares? What difference will it make?'" Ziggy wrote on IG. "Just imagine what the world would have looked like now if not for their sacrifices. Go ahead, imagine it. Can you see it? Well, what do you think?"

"To be clear voting is not the end-all," Ziggy Marley added. "It is a small piece of a puzzle and just one of the tools in our toolbox that we must use as part of a larger effort to bring positive beneficial changes for all people. The work must continue at maximum effort after elections regardless of the outcome." Ziggy emphasized that he was not voting for a party or a person for an idea. "Even though we have differences we can be better human beings, more united human beings, more loving human beings, equal human beings, just human beings. The politics will come and go left right and center but still through it all the humanity that we must show to each other is not negotiable."

Ziggy voted by mail this year, but for those of you standing in line today to exercise your right and let your voices be heard, Ziggy curated a special playlist for Tidal's "Hold The Line" campaign. Music to vote by—from Ziggy and Bob to Fela and James Brown, not to mention Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine.

Ziggy Marley’s new album, More Family Time, is out now on all music streaming platforms.

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