PJ Morton PJ Morton
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PJ Morton Talks Grammys, Super Bowl And Finding His Niche

It's only three months into 2019, and PJ Morton has already had a strong year: A Grammy Award, a Super Bowl performance, and a beautiful new record with JoJo.

Thank goodness that PJ Morton trusted his gut.

“PJ, you're not mainstream enough / Would you consider us changing some stuff / Like everything about who you are / No offense, we're just trying to make you a star,” Morton sings on “Claustrophobic,” a song from his 2017 album Gumbo. “PJ, you're not quite street enough … can you switch your style up a little more? You can be yourself later, for now we need the radio.”

Whatever advice he got from out-of-touch record execs was nonsense. PJ Morton being himself has served him well: the album that hosted the above lyrics earned him two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song. He took home his first Grammys trophy himself this year with the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his “How Deep Is Your Love,” one of three nominations at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards from 2018's Gumbo Unplugged.

Along with the hardware, he also got one of the most memorable experiences of his life. As a member of Maroon 5, he headlined the Super Bowl LIII halftime show in a performance with Travis Scott and Big Boi. His beloved football Saints may have gotten robbed in the weeks leading up to the big game, but New Orleans still has plenty to celebrate with Morton’s recent success.

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“I felt [the energy] even when we were rehearsing with nobody in there. But then, when you feel that audience in there and you know it’s live, it’s just—to me it started as nervousness a little bit and then it just turned into excitement, knowing that you’re reaching all these people. Really for me, it’s a sentimental moment,” Morton said. “Our manager passed away last year, and I remember, since I’ve been in the band for nine years, the Super Bowl was just something that we were always looking [forward] to. For Jordan [Feldstein] to not be here for this made me reflect a lot on that and reflect on my life as a musician and the things I’ve did that ultimately got me to the biggest gigs a musician could want.”

Rather than celebrate his accomplishments for the rest of the year, Morton is using them as momentum. Weeks after the Super Bowl, he had the Valentine's Day release of  "Say So," a beautiful new duet with JoJo.

VIBE caught up on the phone with PJ Morton prior to the Grammys as he sat in his studio in New Orleans to chat about his nominations, his journey into creating his sound, the Super Bowl halftime performance and New Orleans Saints, and whether black musicians and fans should still care about the ceremony.

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What were you doing when you found out about you were nominated a second time?

It was about 5 a.m. in the morning, I had to wake up, I was on the West Coast and that’s when I found out, but this year, I was more just in shock. I was shocked about [being nominated for] Best R&B Album, I wasn’t necessarily expecting it. I [was nominated for] Best R&B Album last year and…whew, I almost shed a tear last year. This year I was just in shock (laughs). I called my family and shared the news and it was amazing.

At this point in your career, what does the award mean to you?

It still means a lot to me. I’ve yet to win one [until now] as a solo artist or as an artist period. It still means that it was voted by your peers. It’s voted on by the professionals in the music industry so that always means a lot. You definitely want to impress your friends. So this is like impressing your friends, known or unknown, who are amazing artists, musicians, and engineers so it still means a lot to me.

There’s a lot of conversation about the validation of these type of awards when it comes to black music. Which one means the most to you? The validation of the Academy or the people?

Ultimately, I make music for people, whether I win an award or not. Like I said, I was up for two Grammys last year and didn’t win, but it didn’t take away from the impact that I had on the people who've been supporting me and being able to go out on the road and sell out tours, that’ll always mean the most to me. [The Grammy] is like a cherry on top, the award and the validation from them. I make music for the people first.

And a lot of your success reminds me of your song “Claustrophobic,” considering the story behind that song. Do you feel like you’re fitting in nowadays or are people recognizing your individuality more?

I think individuality is being more celebrated in general these days. Before, the big labels and everybody were able to prove to us what was hot and what’s supposed to be the best thing and everything. I think that the way the industry is moving now, people are able to make their own decisions. They don’t have to listen to the radio if they don’t want to or listen to anybody who tells them who to listen to. They can go and create their own playlist and find the artists they love. For me, now I’m able to stand out a little bit more and my fans are able to choose on their own without anybody having to feed it to them. I think that part is being celebrated, who I am in “Claustrophobic” and really fighting to be myself. I think people connected to that more than anything.

What was the real life experience that lead you to create that song?

It was a combination of things, but the last straw was that I had just left Young Money and was looking to go into working on a new record and I took a meeting with a label and the meeting had went so bad. These people didn’t understand me at all. I remember myself kind of checking out of the meeting even before I left. I knew I had to get out of there both figuratively and [literally]. I was ready to just move on and do something else. And that meeting kind of put me on my path to leave Los Angeles and move to New Orleans and really find myself again.

How long did it take you to find your niche all the way? I know you’ve been through some ups and downs with that.

That’s the other side of it. I feel like I’ve been myself the whole time. It’s not like I’ve made some huge transition and made some music that I’ve never made before. I’ve always kind of done it like this. But I think it was more so when I wasn’t making music, when I was trying to make music and couldn’t really get to myself and couldn’t figure out who I was. It’s just more of what I’m talking about in “Claustrophobic,” but any time I’m making music, I feel like I’ve been my authentic self. It was just a matter of making sure I got back to that and gotten back to it fully. And I feel like, for me, it’s always a journey. You live, you evolve, you grow, and I think the art reflects that. I never feel like I’m done learning and growing. I think it was all through the journey that I found my niche, but if you listen to my first album 10 years ago, you still hear the same PJ, you still hear the same instruments so it’s not like I drastically changed or found some new sh*t I didn’t have in the beginning. I’m always perfecting it and growing and evolving.

Let’s go back to the Grammys for a second. In previous years, they’ve gotten many awards wrong when it comes to our music and some would argue that both black artists and fans should no longer care about them or other mainstream award shows. Do you think that they’re relevant at all to black music?

I think black people—so there’s two levels to the Grammys, right? I think the voting usually gets it right because you have small committees who are making sure—and these committees are industry professionals. So, the R&B singers and the R&B producers are the ones who make sure that the right artists, the right songs are in the right category. Even [from] last year to this year, I think the categories are right, the songs are right, whoever I’m up against I think all of that is right. I think sometimes when you get to the general voting where sometimes people who aren’t experts in those categories have to put their vote in when they don’t even know what’s been going on in the streets or what’s been going on in these genres. That’s when sometimes it goes a little left. So, I think they’re relevant. I think the Grammys are relevant. When the Grammys work when they’re designed to work, it’s a beautiful thing. So, I don’t need to be voting in the country category because I’m not listening to country all of the time and I’m not creating country music. But when the country guys are voting for country music, then they’ll get that right. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s being able to stick to what you know. In that sense, I think they’re relevant for sure.

 

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Much love to everybody that celebrated with me last night!! 🙏🏾⚜️⚜️⚜️ #NEWORLEANSFINEST #GRAMMYS

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With this new influx of new R&B and jazz artists, do you think that at this point, both genres are getting the respect they deserve?

I definitely think it’s getting better, it’s growing. I don’t know if it’s getting the full respect that it deserves but it’s going in the right direction. We’re getting more love.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Jennifer Lopez performing the Motown tribute at the ceremony. Who are some legends that you think should get deserve a tribute that might not have had one before on that kind of platform?

That’s a good question. I think sometimes we wait until people die before they get a tribute. I think we’re at the point where probably Anita Baker deserves a tribute. Chaka Khan, maybe. It’s so many people who’s had an impact, I don’t think Al Green has had a tribute [since his BET Awards tribute in 2008] and that’s one of the soundtracks to America.

On your Super Bowl halftime performance, the New Yorker called it an “artless spectacle.” How did you and/or Maroon 5 handle the negative criticism?

I mean, I think the other side of when you play—when you have that many people watching you, at one time, you can’t expect for all of it to be good. What I haven’t heard out of everybody is the critique that they sounded bad (laughs), which is what I wanted to accomplish. I think they had expectations for us to do something other than play our songs. I think what gets you to the Super Bowl is lots of success and we’ve been blessed to have hit songs and successful tours for years and years. Like I said, I’ve been [in Maroon 5] for nine years while the guys have been a band for 20 years and to have success like that and still currently have success with a huge #1 song with “Girls Like You.” I can’t really let a bad critique [bother me]—or really not even bad, all of it just like a regular “it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad,” that’s what I’ve been hearing.

To have a lot of that success over the years and to make it to the Super Bowl and to allow somebody that gives a “regular” critique to sway me in any way, it just doesn’t do anything to me. I’m happy. I wanted to make sure that we play the music well and that we sounded good and we put on a good show. I’m sorry that we couldn’t (laughs) live up to the expectations like I think we were supposed to do some backflips or something like that or do some other things, but I just wanted to play the music and that was our plan from the beginning and that’s what we did. I’m proud of my bandmates for doing what we do. We’re musicians and we play music and entertain people. That’s what we did.

As we both know, the actual Super Bowl game was terrible. As a New Orleans native, how did you feel about the Saints not making it to Super Bowl?

I was deeply hurt! I was deeply hurt, man! We should have been there. I thought that the call was as obvious as it gets, and I don’t think I’ve seen a worst no call blunder in my life watching sports. It was bittersweet with for the Saints not to be there. They should have been playing and it would have been a more exciting game too. It was disappointing and we should have been there. But at least one New Orleans native made it to the Super Bowl.

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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
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An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

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Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

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As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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Mike Coppola

The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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Sony Music

Meet Zhavia, The Musician Who Refuses To Be Boxed In

If you haven’t heard of Zhavia before, that will likely change very, very soon.

The 18-year-old Columbia Records signee is readying her first major EP 17, which is scheduled for June 14. A native of the Golden State, Zhavia catapulted to national consciousness after making it to the top four of the inaugural season of FOX’s singing competition, The Four, which features Diddy and DJ Khaled as judges. Since then, she continues to rise and tantalize audiences with her powerful, chill-inducing vocals.

The singer-songwriter—who tells VIBE she’s hopeful that her forthcoming EP will be “inspiring” to her ever-growing fanbase—dropped the project’s latest single “17” on May 31. Produced by hip-hop hitmaker Hit-Boy and co-written by RØMANS, Zhavia explains that the retrospective song is more personal than her previously-released tracks, such as the trap-tickled “100 Ways” and “Candlelight,” the stand-out single that showcases the vocal prowess of the petite blonde ingenue.

"’17’ is a song that I wrote about my life story, and how I got to where I am right now,” she says. The track details hardships such as a lack of resources to thrive in her childhood home and staying in a motel in order to accomplish her musical goals. “I just wanted it to be something that [fans] can relate to, whatever it is that they're going through.”

“I saw it in my dreams, I knew that life would change for me,” she croons on the new single. “This is reality, look at me now.”

Zhavia’s humble beginnings start in Norwalk, Calif., as a daughter of two musicians who introduced her to numerous genres. In fact, her mother was a member of a metal band called Xenoterra, and Zhavia’s impressively-versatile vocal range could be attributed to this Chex Mix bag of sonic stylings.

“From doo-wop to punk to R&B, metal, rock...” she says, listing of the types of music she was brought up on, which helped her in honing a unique style. Her own tunes feature an R&B and hip-hop flair and sprinkles touches of other genres throughout, in order for her to remain true to her roots.

“I feel like for the most part, [my music will] always have that R&B feel to it, but I'm always gonna have a lot of different vibes for people to pick and choose what they like,” she explains.

Zhavia's urban-tinged musical affinity was palpable during her time on The Four, where she put her spin on hits such as French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Although she was unanimously selected by the show’s four celebrity judges to advance after a stellar first-round performance of Khalid’s “Location,” she admits she initially wasn’t planning to compete.

“When I was younger, I had wanted to go on a [singing] show, but I had made up my mind. ‘I'm gonna try to do it myself,’” she chuckles. “But, the people that were having auditions, they happened to be at the studio that I was recording at when I was making my own songs. My manager told me, 'Just go sing for them.'”

After showing off her impressive pipes, she was convinced to join the show, and was further influenced to compete after discovering that The Four appeared to focus on R&B and hip-hop-leaning artists.

“I was like, 'Okay, that sounds like me, they'll probably accept the style of music that I do,'” she continues. “I feel like on other singing shows, it's a little more pop, or towards the pop genre. Also, the panel that they had [DJ Khaled, Diddy, Meghan Trainor and Charlie Walk] seemed really relevant, and I could tell it was legit. I figured I'd just try it out, and it led me to where I am now.”

Since placing fourth on the show, Zhavia has proven that her star power was built to last longer than 15 minutes. Other than her forthcoming EP’s release, her gifts have found her among the company of some big names. She can be heard on the soundtrack for Deadpool 2 in the song “Welcome To The Party” with Diplo, French Montana and Lil Pump. Recently, moviegoers were treated to her rendition of the Disney classic “A Whole New World” with Zayn Malik, for the live-action version of Aladdin, which plays during the film’s end credits.

“I think it's been amazing, and it's definitely a lot of exposure that comes in a unique way,” she says of working on big projects with even bigger industry names. She continues by stating that she’s had a blast “putting her own twist” on songs she didn’t pen and doing material “totally different from what [she] would normally do.”

The pressures of Hollywood and the entertainment industry could be difficult on anyone, however, young stars under the U.S. legal age in the limelight may find themselves succumbing to various pressures, temptations and burnout. For Zhavia, she makes sure to keep a level head and a positive attitude in order to persevere in the industry as she matures.

“I feel like it's not that hard to stay focused, because I've wanted to do this my whole life,” she says affirmatively. “It's what I live for. For me, one of my number one priorities besides my family is music. I don't really go out, I don't party, I don't do none of that. I just work! [Laughs] I think for me, it's just focusing on myself and what I wanna do, and what I wanna get done.” She’s also hoping to keep surprising people throughout her career by coming up with genre-bending songs that show off her style, personality and abilities. Let her do her, and watch her as she goes.

“I'm not gonna be put in a box to do just one type of music or one style of song,” Zhavia affirms. “I don't want people to get used to one thing, you know? That's kind of a hard thing to express to the world. I feel like it comes with me coming up with more music, and to keep creating music for people to listen to and get to know me.”

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