Stro-shot-by-Elijah-Dominique-for-Mass-Appeal-1549489774 Stro-shot-by-Elijah-Dominique-for-Mass-Appeal-1549489774
Elijah Dominique/Mass Appeal

Stro Doesn't Want To Be A Rapping Pop Star, He's More Than That

The Brooklyn lyricist and actor talks about his new album Nice 2 Meet U, Again, his deal with Nas, defying LA Reid while at Epic Records and more.

Some people say that authenticiy is significantly missing from the new generation of hip-hop, but Brooklyn emcee Stro wants to rock the type of rhymes that made him fall in love with the culture in the first place. Confident, bold and focused, the 22-year-old, who first came to prominence at age 14 on FOX’s short-lived talent competition show The X-Factor, is creating his lane in rap music with his latest EP Nice 2 Meet You, Again.

The eight-track project features a slew of finely tuned cut bars, dreamy melodies, and lucid storytelling reminiscent of what the Brooklyn rapper grew up on. Stro sat down with VIBE to discuss young adulthood, his musical influences, upcoming film/TV gigs and where he sees himself in the next few years.

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VIBE: Given the way hip-hop has changed over the last decade and the current state of hip-hop, how do you see yourself changing the game with your own music?

Stro: I'm channeling a certain level of greatness. I feel that's something that we don't really see too much, especially amongst younger artists today. We always see people like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac and just write them off as legends and make it seems like they're untouchable, when I feel like I'm an artist that's trying to not only reach that level but extend it and take it farther than they even took it, just elevating the culture. People won't have any more excuses as to why something is wack. Right now if the music is wack, we'll say, “Oh, he's young, he's not supposed to make good music.” Nah, that's bullsh*t because you got all these like myself who are still putting out quality hip-hop from a young perspective.

On the intro of Nice 2 Meet You, Again, you say, "Tell L.A. Reid, I'm not a pop star." You were signed to Epic Records several years ago and at the time, L.A. Reid was the chairman and CEO. Why don’t you want to be a pop star?

That's pretty much what happened when I was signed with Epic Records, they were trying to sway my music or my style more in that direction. I ain't mad at him. Of course, I'm glad it happened how it happened, but that's just not who I am. That’s just not the element I'm from, and that's not the story I came to tell. That line wasn't nothin' too serious to me. It was just like, just off-the-rip I'ma let people know and I figured L.A. Reid will hear this one day. So I'm like, just let him know I ain't a pop star because that's not okay in the industry trying to force everybody into these boxes. And if you can't become what they think you are, then they say, “Oh, you're not ready for the business.” Nah, that just isn’t my style. When the time is right it takes off, and I think the time is right now.

So no ill feelings toward him?

No, no, no. I actually seen L.A. Reid, a few weeks before I released the EP and I was laughing. I told him, "Yeah, I just signed to Nas." I just seen his son Aaron Reid, too. They cool as sh*t. It's nothing personal. It's just hip-hop. That's an element we forgot about in the culture. Just speaking what's on your mind at the moment. It's not always meant in the serious tone.

You’re signed to Mass Appeal. How important is it that a record label coincides with your goals? Nas also has a reputation for not playing the pop star game.

I don't even think in the realm of pop star this or that. I just make good music. I know I'm trying to make the best music period. I'm not thinking about radio or underground now. When we look at Jay-Z, you're not thinking about underground or radio, you're just thinking like “ni**a that's Jay-Z, that's hip-hop.” Same thing with Biggie or Nas. These are legends and that's why I think they are able to be here forever. I'm modeling myself off of Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg has been here forever and been relevant forever. Whatever he's doing is just staying new and just staying hip-hop. A lot of people think hip-hop is old school when hip-hop is really just fresh, so we could get as experimental as we want. We can go back and trace the roots if we want. We can do whatever we want just as long as there's some fresh sh*t.

Have you met up with Nas yet? If so, has he offered any advice?

I haven't hung out with him. I've linked with him in the studio once to play him some tunes and some songs off this project. He had actually heard it before we met, and he was vibing with it. I was just getting good feedback through other people from him.

We didn't have a super deep discussion but one thing we did touch on was how hard to go with lyricism. I mentioned my plan as far as putting out Nice 2 Meet You, Again and the next body of work and how I was going to approach the actual records and sh*t like that. I told him I had a fear that sometimes it's too lyrical, sometimes people don't want it. But he made the point that now people actually want to hear that sh*t.

So, you shouldn't hold back. You should go out every time because people actually want to hear it. I feel like that's true though. I think we entertain the bullsh*t, but we know the difference between soul food and McDonald's. Sometimes, people want soul food.

Do you believe that the best work, whether it's yours or others', comes out of the most minimalist involvement? Not having the biggest budget, or having very few producers or writers on your team?

Definitely. That's why I'm grateful to Mass Appeal. Their support is genuine because they don't just post the songs and retweet it. You actually go to the office and motherf**kers like, "Yo, good job on that. What can we do to help you promote this project?” We're always coming up with new ideas whether it's for visuals, what we want to be the next single, what we want to put out next and highlight next. So just to have that is motivating for me that other people are giving a sh*t about what you do, they act as if this is really their job because it is their job. It made me feel like I can't sit back and be lazy.

You're 22 now. How's adult life been treating you?

I know 21 was really like when adult life hit me. Like oh sh*t, I got bills, all sorts of obstacles and then maintaining the music. [Now, at age 22] I understand that sh*t is real. Let me prepare. Preparation is a very relevant word in my life today. Preparation, faith. I got that sh*t tatted. Preparation and faith just in the journey and for moments like these.

Now people take you more seriously when you got facial hair, too. When I walk in the room now...they want to hear what you have to say. I'm being dramatic and exaggerating, but I'm older, I'm wiser, I've experienced more, and I think the music is at a point where it's undeniable. You can say it's not for you, you can say it's not something you'll listen to all the time, but you can't say it's wack.

On songs like "Ghetto Story," you talk about growing up with a single mother. How have your mom and family been involved in your career, whether it was direct involvement or emotional support?

I mean I guess, but it been that way. It's never a situation where it's we're each other's therapist and no crazy sh*t like that. We just talk we like family. I feel like every family does that or should do that, but it's never a situation where it's like some dramatic or sympathetic a** sh*t. If I'm f**king up and my money's low, I'm going through it, my mom would tell me, ‘get your sh*t together.’ She'll do what she can do, but it's not like a Disney family. We still from Brooklyn. They support me, but that's has been there since day one.

So, your mom is Jamaican?

Mom's Jamaican, my whole family's Jamaican.

Do you plan on incorporating reggae and dancehall into your music?

Oh yeah, of course. That's what I listen to. My favorite reggae artist right now is Super Cat. It's been that way for a while, but I look at him as an emcee. If you really go back and study a lot of Super Cat sh*t, that's what inspires a little bit of my aesthetic. Just that original vibe, that unquestionable, undeniable type of firmness when you're in your voice and in your statements and in the way you carry yourself. That's something I get from the West Indian side.

While growing up, was there a record that made you say, "Okay, music is what I want to do"?

I'd been listening to rap since I was like five. The first hip-hop record I would say I fell in love with that I can remember is "Gimme the Loot" by The Notorious B.I.G., and that was real young. But I don't remember saying then that I want to be a rapper. It was just something I feel like I was like involved in since I was born. But I remember when I wrote my first rap, I heard 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" on the radio. I was just copying the structure. I didn't know what the hook was, what bars were, what verses were. I was just saying, "Okay, he keeps saying this part over and over at this time, let me write my sh*t in the same type of form." And that's the first time I ever wrote a song.

Who are your top five favorite singers and rappers of all time that are from your hometown of Brooklyn?

Jay Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane. I guess SWV counts with two of them is from Brooklyn. (Editor’s note: Tamara "Taj" George is from Brooklyn, while Lelee and Coko are from the Bronx.) If I had to add one more person, f**k it I'ma put myself in there man. You got the legends, but I try to have like an out of body experience when I'm observing or presenting my art. So, when I listen to my sh*t, I know it's like “this sh*t is wavy.” It's like Brooklyn, but it's a fresh perspective of Brooklyn in a way. We haven't seen it, so I got to throw myself in humbly. But even if you think it's cocky, f**k it. I don't care.

You’ve also done some acting. You were in Red Band Society with Octavia Spencer and then you were in Earth to Echo. Do you want to be along the lines of Will Smith or LL Cool J in terms of conquering both Hollywood and music at the same time?

I think more along the lines of like the Tupac or Ice Cube. No insult to Will or LL, but I feel like I'm a little more rugged than that. I don't like to see myself as too clean...I'm not trying to be a Jaden Smith or no sh*t like that. I'm just trying to be a Stro.

I want to provide a new example. When we see Ice Cube, that's an example. When we see Tupac, that's an example. Now I want it to be like when we see Stro, that's an example. Even with Drake, that's an example, but I can't say I'm like Drake because we just have totally different paths. With acting, I'm trying to curate it a little bit more because I've been blessed to be a part of a lot of dope projects. I just did a film for Netflix called See You, Yesterday that's produced by Spike Lee, directed by Stefan Bristol. That's coming out in 2019. Did something for TNT, a short series. I was in two episodes that's coming out soon in 2019. Did an independent movie called Loose with Octavia Spencer, we got to work together again, that was dope. That’s coming out in 2019. I try to do a little bit of everything, but at the same time, I try to make sure it's stuff I actually want to do. You want to stay afloat but you still gotta curate and make sure that it's dope content. I feel like I'll be a part of more statement type of films [and shows] in the future, like Atlanta and Insecure.

Who taught you how to act? Was it a coach? A veteran actor in the game?

Stepdad, who used to be my manager. That's literally the only thing we really did was go over scripts and send in the audition tapes in the living room. I think he had dreams of being an actor at some point in his life and he actually dabbled in acting. He's done extra work.

It seems Hollywood is looking to have more diverse roles for black male actors so they don’t have to play stereotypical roles. Have you thought about using your acting and music as opportunities to make statements about social issues?

I try to just make sure I'm a part of dope sh*t as long as it's dope. One thing I don't feel like I need to play into though is any political statements when I'm acting or even [in] my music. I feel like everything is a political statement now. I don't want to do that. I want my music or my brand or the world of Stro to be a voice for the listener, an escape from the politics. Rappers and actors shouldn't be politicians. I mean you can, you should always be fighting, speak[ing] for your people. But I still want the highlight of what Stro is doing to be "Yo, this sh*t is dope," not because he's trying to say this or that.

Cardi B and Chance the Rapper are doing a Netflix rap competition series. Being that you came up through X-Factor, what are your thoughts?

I'm not in that world. I think that's dope, but I'm not going to lie and be like, "Yo, I'm going to be watching you might be a judge on there." That's the thing about X-Factor and sh*t like that. My mind isn't be there, bro. My mind was always on the dream, it wasn't on the attention. So, when people bring up The X-Factor, I don't know if I come off more standoffish when I talk about it, but to me, that was a step that was like what Martin Lawrence did with Star Search before he got his own show. That's how I approach it.

Astro was in X-Factor at 14, Stro is 22 now. Where do you see yourself at 32?

I don't know, man. I don't know exactly where I see myself because my life is very random in a good way. I didn't see myself acting, that's not something I'd go to school for. I never took acting classes but that's just something I ended up trying and sh*t ended up working in. I was very embraced and accepted by the film world.

So, I don't know. I'll definitely be doing more acting, more music, touring. Definitely have my own label Grade A Tribe Records, which right now it was still an idea, more of a concept and it is a label. But over the years I plan to really make that a real thing.

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You can catch Stro on the road for the Starting 5 Tour, which kicks off tonight (Feb. 6) in Santa Ana, Calif. Entry is free for fans and you can RSVP at tix.to/starting5tour.

 

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Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

The Ying and Yang of ‘Yardie’ Star Aml Ameen

There’s a scar above Aml Ameen’s right eyebrow that he got when he was three years old. Thirty years later, the British actor can laugh at running face first so ferociously he split his head open. The victim he was charging at, his cousin, walked away without a scratch.

Cracking himself open is what Ameen did in order to embody the role of D, the lead in Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie. Adapted into a screenplay from the 1992 Victor Headley novel of the same name, viewers see Ameen take on a character who’s more morally ambidextrous than he is ethically ambiguous. The film spans two decades and locations—Jamaica and London—as D grapples with his brother’s murder and enacting revenge while diving deeper into a treacherous drug world.

To become a true yardie, Ameen who’s British-Jamaican and Vincentian, went full method acting. After living in Bob Marley’s homeland for three months, when Ameen returned to London, friends, family or whoever met him anew.

“People met me as D, they met me as the part. The mindset, I was only speaking patois. All the cast and crew met me as D. And so, by the time I came back I had gotten out of my own way to a large degree in terms of any trepidation I might have,” he says. “When you immerse yourself fully into a world and you give over to a part often you start by feeling like you’re faking it. But after a while, your body doesn’t know you’re telling it something. It just starts to believe it. So let’s just say you’re telling yourself every morning ‘I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!’ Your body will start feeling that. It can be a bit traumatic, but you don’t have to do as much work. So that foundation of playing D gave me a lot of confidence.”

Ameen isn’t unattractive. In fact, he’s handsome. Standing a hair above 5’6” his tall personality supersedes his actual height. His toasted almond skin is clear. His lips full. He smiles often but there’s a resting smirk that gives way to slight mischief or an undetected superpower. It could be his ability to transform to a spliff smoking badmon, or maybe it’s the courage he mustered the night before this interview to perform at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. Either way, something’s there.

D and Ameen however, couldn’t be any more different. Ameen is measured, deliberate with his words and tidy. His Ray-Ban sunglasses accent his blue striped button-down and his tan wool coat. D is unpredictable, shaggy; his locs an orchestra of controlled chaos. D also isn’t opposed to shooting first and to channel his character’s demeanor, Ameen channeled his Uncle Kirk.

“My Uncle Kirk is one of them stoic, handsome, men from his time in the 80s. There are loads of pictures I have of him and he’s just one of them men who didn’t really smile but when he smiled it was like is he smiling because he’s happy with what you’re saying or not?” he says. “I’ve got a lot of British in me and we tend to be polite by default. You see Jamaicans, they’ll look you in your eye and talk to you like this [with a straight face] for all of the interview and it’s fine with them. There’s an intensity.”

As a first-generation Jamaican, I can attest to the seriousness that runs through the island. Despite the sun, the rum and the savory oxtail gravy, Jamaicans don’t joke around, or as we say: we nuh romp.

Serendipity was at play when Ameen and Elba first met in an elevator both heading to the same Los Angeles-bound flight. They discussed the book and Elba’s script. Ameen’s verbiage of choice is “sanitized” when describing the difference in the brutality of D on screen compared to the novel. Over time, the young rebel develops a coke habit and to bait Clancy, his brother’s killer, D rapes the mother of his children. In the movie, however, after breaking into their home and points a gun at Clancy’s girlfriend, D grants privacy when she pretends to breastfeed her child.

And while D doesn’t explicitly say it, he has a death wish. If you watch the film properly as Ameen suggests, you can see moments in which D is chasing after his own demise. Ameen’s only desire is to live his life fully, a reality he better understands isn’t a luxury afforded to many.

“I’ve experienced people who died who were my age, and not died from like the usual gangs or that sort, but like a heart attack, 33 years old, dead. Another friend pushed off a balcony by his girlfriend. Uncle died three days ago, my dad’s brother,” Ameen says. “When my two bredins died, it was a certain feeling, but with my uncle dying I had more of an understanding of D’s journey, which I had to imagine now, than 18 months two years ago during filming. It’s very hard to fill the void of a family member dying. You never know when your card is going to get pulled, so you want enough time to do stuff, but at the same time once real people die in your life that you love you fear it less.”

D also never worked with The Sexiest Man Alive. Ameen describes Elba’s directorial hand as less controlling and more freeing. Elba would later invite Ameen to his home while filming The Mountain Between Us where the two shaped the character. Once the two-time Golden Globe winner yelled “action!” Ameen said he was granted the autonomy to do what he wanted.

“[Elba] wanted me to method act and we discussed the general mindset of D, the look that he wanted to achieve. He wanted a uniform accent, things like that. And then he just set those parameters and left me to go in and do it,” he says. “He knows the type of actor I am. He wasn’t like, ‘All right, this is how I want you to do it.’ I’ve worked with first-time directors before. I never worked with an actor-director and he gave a lot of space. There were only so many moments when he was like, ‘This is what I want’ and he allowed me to create this world where I lived.”

While going full method was the approach that made for the best performance, it wasn’t always easy for some on set. Ameen rarely broke character and admittedly held others “hostage to his process.” He was so intrinsically D, it took him roughly eight months to let go of him once the film wrapped.

“Not like talking patois all the time, but the state of being. Every morning as D I’m waking up to gunshots as my alarm clock. Every morning I’m sitting in bed for an hour or two imagining the murder of my brother. If you’re a person with a conscious, that’ll run on your mind. It took me a while, definitely.”

I forget my follow up question and the room gets quiet. We’ve been talking for close to 40 minutes. Ameen uses this chance to turn the tables and question me. We discuss zodiac signs and Miles Davis. There’s a younger version of the late jazz legend Ameen believes is equally complex and intriguing. He admits he’d love to portray him. Instead, he’ll have to settle for Netflix’s forthcoming Inside Man 2, a departure from the Spike Lee-directed crime-drama which starred Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” I tell him.

“I ain’t tryna fill em. That’s the goat,” Ameen says of Washington as he chuckles. “I could be the ram if they want. I can be the little lamb.”

He opens his Spotify app and plays “Blue In Green.”

“What’s your star sign?” he questions.

Every man I’ve ever loved (whether reciprocal or not) is a Leo, so when I learned of his July 30th birthday, I was...annoyed.

VIBE: We don’t get along.

Ameen: Who don’t?

VIBE: We don’t.

Ameen: Why do you say that?

VIBE: I looked it up. We don’t get along.

Ameen: Is that the attitude you came to the interview with? That’s terrible. What’s your sign?

VIBE: I’m a Gemini. I find Leo men are, it’s almost astonishing, how confident they are, and like unjustifiably so sometimes.

Ameen: And that’s what I remind you of?

He takes a sip of water and leans back. He crosses his legs and continues to listen to Miles while scrolling through social media on his phone. A smile emerges on his face. Like his Uncle Kirk, I’m not sure if he’s smiling because he finds our banter fun and playful, or if his unknown superpower is bubbling at the surface.

“Interesting,” Ameen says.

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American musician Millie Jackson performs onstage at the Park West Auditorium, Chicago, Illinois, May 30, 1980.
Photo by Paul Natkin

Music Sermon: Millie Jackson - The Original Bad Girl

You know that auntie who you were nervous to bring your young male friends around back in the day because she might proposition them in the kitchen when nobody was looking? Or the auntie liable to cuss out a family member or two after dinner for something that happened 12 years ago? The one that women in your family whispered about, warning not to leave men around alone? Who your mama didn’t want you to spend too much time with, but you were always excited to see because she was entertaining and was gonna slip you a little pocket change?

That auntie listens to Millie Jackson.

Millie Jackson is not just an R&B singer. She’s a Rhythm & Blues singer. She’s card party music. Your parents having people over and you’re not allowed to come downstairs music. Working class black folks hanging out down at the VFW after a long week with some well liquor music.

She’s been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap,” because of her signature, no-holds-barred lyrical content and her long “raps” – profanity-laced, sexually explicit stories and jokes – interwoven through her songs and live sets. Auntie Millie is part singer and part outrageous comedienne – but don’t take her as a joke. She’s a deceptively serious artist, with career highlights that went largely unnoticed because of the raunch.

In our continued celebration of bad-ass women in music for the month of March, we present 11 essential Auntie Millie facts.

1. Her Singing Career Was an Accident

One Thursday night, Millie Jackson was hanging with friends at the Psalms Café on 125th Street in Harlem. The restaurant hosted an open mic on Thursdays, and Millie was clowning a young woman for her terrible singing. Her friends bet her $5 to get up herself and sing, and she did it – even though she had no training as a singer. A club promoter in the audience offered her a gig the following week, someone saw her there and offered her more gigs, and that continued. She sung around New York and New Jersey for a couple of years while still working full time, and eventually landed a spot touring with Sam Cooke’s brother, LC. After one short-lived recording contract, she signed with funk and soul label Spring Records (co-founded by the father and uncle of Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind). She was so unsure her career would stick, she asked for a leave of absence from her job instead of quitting. It became an extremely extended leave.

Her trademark “rapping,” the long intros, interludes and dialogue breaks Millie masterfully blends into her songs and live sets, was also an accident. Millie had no formal vocal training, so she wasn’t a strong singer at the beginning of her career. When people in supper clubs and lounges would start talking to each other and turning their attention away from the performance, she started talking to them to keep them engaged. It became a key part of her artistry. Millie doesn’t just sing you a song, she tells you a story.

2. She Developed Her Raw and Raunchy Style Because of Gladys Knight

Millie and Gladys sound alike. It’s hard to hear in Jackson’s grittier songs; in those, she sounds more like Teddy Pendergrass’s voice and Tina Turner’s voice had a vocal baby. In her ballads, though, you can close your eyes and imagine Gladys. Or at least Gladys after some brown liquor. Comparisons started almost immediately in Millie’s career. It was potentially a problem– the label held back a single because they thought people would hear it and ask for a new Gladys album – so she began to separate herself from Knight with her raw sound and lyrical content.

Over time, that separation also included cursing. “Gladys started rappin’ on (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and I’m like ‘Ok, now she’s gonna rap? I guess I’ll just cuss,’” Millie once explained. “She’s too much of a lady to curse.”

Jackson leaned all the way into the explicit language and topics - the Washington Post called her “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity” in 1986 - until those two factors nearly overshadowed not only her raw talent, but the fact that her songs were also technically fantastic, complete with incredible arrangements and expert live instrumentation provided by the Muscle Shoals Swampers, one of the best rhythm sections in music history.

3. She Flipped the Concept of the Concept Album

Caught Up is the concept album "Trapped in the Closet" wanted to be when it grew up.

While Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were creating cohesive bodies of work that reflected community, racial and environmental turmoil, Millie focused on what was happening in the home. Spring Records paired the singer with producer Brad Shapiro, whose credits include Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and he took her to the famed Muscle Shoals to record with the studio’s legendary session musicians, the Swampers.

Millie knew she wanted to make an album where “one song keeps going into the next song,” like a long story. Caught Up is a narrative about an affair, but from two perspectives: the first half of the album is from the mistresses point of view, the second half is the wife’s.

“We knew we were onto something (after “If Loving You Is Wrong”),” Jackson explained in an interview. “Then somebody in the studio asked ‘what now?’ And I said, ‘we finish the story. We’ve heard from the girlfriend, but what about the wife?'”

Concept albums were still new, and Spring Records didn’t know what to do with a project featuring nine-minute songs and no clear radio tracks. They brought in one of the most influential black radio DJs in New York, WBLS’s Frankie Crocker, and played it for him. He left the label with the only pressed copy of the LP so he could play “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” immediately.

Jackson has admitted to being the other woman multiple times in her own life, but wanted the representation on the album to be “fair,” and include the wife’s experience. Her interpretation of the betrayed wife wasn’t a broken-down woman crying into a pillow, either. The songs cycled through a full range of emotions, from shock and anger to sadness, defeat, defiance and pettiness.

The label’s skepticism was unfounded; Caught Up reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B album chart and No. 21 on the Pop chart. The success prompted a follow-up album, Still Caught Up, but the original is considered Jackson’s definitive work.

4. She Helped Turn Cheating Into an R&B Genre

Torrid affairs and adultery weren’t new topics in music, but they were relatively new to R&B. In the early ‘70s, songs about cheating – not about the aftermath, but basically celebrating cheating - were mostly found in juke joint blues and country western music, and were rarely from the woman’s perspective. “These were conversations that women had with each other on the laundromat. You didn’t hear them on records,” Millie explained in a recent interview about Caught Up. “You especially didn’t hear them on the radio.” Billy Paul, Luke Ingram, Johnny Taylor, and Millie – all singers who straddled the line between blues and soul - helped change that. By the mid-70s, adultery R&B was a full-blown subgenre, with songs like “Woman to Woman” and “From His Woman to You” (because “Woman to Woman” apparently required a reply), then later came “As We Lay,” “Secret Lovers,” and a long list of others. Songs about the wife calling the side, the side responding to the wife (the temerity!), the husband talking to the side, the wife proclaiming love to her side. It was a mess. But the songs were hits, so you might need to ask your parents and grandparents some honest questions about exactly what the hell was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Millie’s unfiltered and uncensored take on cheating was the centerpiece of her career. “(Infidelity is) my whole repertoire,” she explained once when asked about crafting the stories for her songs. “Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.”

5. Millie Was a Women’s Advocate

The primary topic of Millie’s music, after infidelity, was sex. Not making love. Sex. As in, “you got to handle this.” Like infidelity, sexual demands from the woman’s point of view was topical fare for dirty blues, not R&B.

Don’t start something you can’t finish Frustration ain’t no fun Half way lovin’ just don’t get it Stay there ‘til the job is done.

I would be remiss to not point out the breakdown in “All the Way Lover,” wherein Auntie Millie plants seeds that bore fruit for future generations, advocating for enthusiastic participation in oral sex, or what she called “parteè.”

We thank you for your service and advocacy, Millie.

With the songs hitting close to home about husbands cheating, wives kicking those husbands out, side chicks getting fed up, and calling men out to get focused in the bedroom, Millie believed she turned the male demographic off. “Men did not want my records in their house,” she claimed in an interview. “They wouldn’t come to see me live. Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.”

But Miss Jackson would get at women sometimes, too. She took time, often, in her live show to address “saditty b**ches” who were being too lazy or too uptight to take care of business at home. This was also a form of advocacy, though, in the form of “Sis, stop bullsh*ttin.’”

Millie was a new kind of voice for women’s independence and agency. “Women loved it. I was speaking to them,” Jackson explained to her hometown Atlanta Magazine. But she was talking to women in a way some didn’t consider proper or respectable. She didn’t care. “I didn’t sell record to bougies. It was the poor people who bought my music. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson. The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

She once compared men to bad credit, which I’m laughing about even as I type this because it’s so genius and perfect that I can’t even. It’s an analogy all women understand too well – and we also understand the plot twist on the end when she gives it up anyway (Kanye shrug). She kept it real.

6. Low Key, She’s a Hip-Hop OG

Millie had already established a reputation for her “rapping,” which in the ‘70s meant long dialogue during song breaks, a style made popular in soul music with Isaac Hayes. Millie expanded the technique, telling full narratives that connected her songs. After “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit, her label wanted her to give the new style of rap a shot. In 1980, she recorded a track called “I Had to Say It” that she meant as a spoof of “Rapper’s Delight,” but she was spitting bars on the low. The subject: black men who start dating white women once they’re successful. It would set the timeline on fire today.

She told Song Facts in a frank 2010 interview that the song’s inspiration came unexpectedly. “I was thinking of what the next album (was) gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about,” she shared, “So we’re on the tour bus and I’m going through Jet Magazine, and I’m saying ‘Okay. There’s Arthur Ashe – with a white woman. There’s the guy that plays Shaft on TV with a white woman. Damn, there’s O.J. Simpson – with a white woman… Somebody needs to say this. Why don’t I say this? I have to say this.” And she said it with her signature IDGAF delivery and candor.

Now I got your attention again I wanna speak to you about white girls On the arms of our black men

Millie was just playing around, but Coca Cola explained to her, when they reached out for Sprite's 1999 Obey Your Thirst campaign, that she technically held the distinction of being the first woman to cut a rap song. The campaign, “5 Deadly Women,” featured rappers Eve, Amil, Angie Martinez (remember when Angie was a rapper?), Mia X and Roxanne Shante.

Jackson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the series as The Master, and I applaud Sprite for doing their homework and including her. She was kind of an easter egg, because not many people in the spot’s target audience knew who she was on sight.

Her hipping and hopping on “I Had To Say It” aside, Millie’s been credited as the foremother of Salt-n-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and all female rappers who didn’t take no sh*t from the boys and unabashedly harnessed the power of sexuality in their music. She’s also been heavily sampled in hip-hop for decades: J. Cole, Prodigy, EPMD, Too Short, Poor Righteous Teachers, 50 Cent, Memphis Bleek, Lil’ B, Boogie Down Productions, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Blacksheep, Cam’ron, Geto Boys, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe have all cut Millie a publishing check.

At least three rap acts have sampled/covered her “Phuck You Symphony” alone, which I understand because it’s perfect for hip-hop – just like she is.

7. Her Live Show is Off the Chain

Millie doesn’t just give you a stage with a spotlight and some crooning (and I say “doesn’t” because Auntie still performs). No ma’am, no sir. There’s a full band, including a tight ass horn section, background singers, the whole nine. Also, she doesn’t just sing, it’s part comedy act. She’s a cross between Richard Pryor and popular ‘90s comedian Adele Givens (I truly believe Adele studied Millie).

Millie Jackson’s Live and Outrageous album is essential listening. The show’s energy is palpable even through audio. At her peak, Jackson’s concerts were regularly sold-out. She served costumes, flair, choreography, dramatics, and powerful vocals. Even as her stage show scaled down in later years, Millie Jackson live was no less of an experience. She’s also known for audience participation - if you’re sitting in her line of sight you might become part of the show. Be ready.

8. She’s a Boss

Millie Jackson is absolutely not a contrived artist. Her image is all hers, her musical choices are hers, her career path is hers. There are no Svengali stories, no tales of the label pushing her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. None of that. Millie did what she wanted. Her label did try, in the beginning, to change her sound. They sped her vocals up on records so her voice would be in a higher pitch than her deep, earthy alto. But after “Hurts So Good,” they let her fly.

Millie has been self-managed her entire career. Her one marriage, at the beginning of her success, lasted only eight months because her husband tried to control Jackson and her business. “He thought we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought that he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.”

Millie has also always maintained a large degree of creative control. She co-wrote most her songs from the beginning, and starting with Caught Up, she also co-produced her albums. And she fought when her record label tried to minimize her contribution. “I went down to Muscle Shoals to show (Brad Shapiro) how I do what I do, and co-produced the album. And when the album came out, it said ‘Album concept by Millie Jackson,’ and I hit the ceiling,” she shared in an interview. “I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally (Spring Records co-head) Roy Rifkind said, ‘Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet.’ And (Spring Records co-head) Bill Spitowski said, ‘We’ll put it on your tombstone: Produced by Millie Jackson.’”

Self-management is a choice Millie realizes probably held her back from big deals and moves that would elevate her to a higher level of stardom, but it as one that allowed her to follow her career on her own terms. In the same interview just mentioned, she explained her unconventional decision. “I write a lot of songs, and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That’s why I never had a manager; I don’t need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not.” She’s also enjoyed a normalcy that her peers who reached higher heights of fame had to sacrifice. “I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don’t have a bodyguard. I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I’m a long way from starving, and I’m still me.”

9. She Can Sing Anything

Jackson has half-joked often in her later interviews that people don’t pay attention to the more diverse aspects of her catalog.

“If you listen to Millie Jackson on the radio, you ain’t gonna hear nothing but ‘Back in Love By Monday,’ ‘Hurts So Good,’ and ‘If Loving You is Wrong.’ Like I haven’t made any more songs,” she once complained. “I’ve got thirtysomething albums, only got three songs to be played!” Well, a lot of her songs aren’t exactly radio-friendly, but she’s right. With the expansive discography she has (Millie kept recording until 2001), the cheating songs and the raunchy songs are most popular and well-known. Ironically, while critics bemoaned her resistance to growth over the years, she quietly released two country-inspired albums and a rock-inspired album, in addition to more weighted material. “I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them,” she’s said. “Because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity.”

Her very first single, in fact, leaned more towards the social commentary that ‘important’ soul artists were embracing at the time.

Millie has always said she didn’t want to be a crossover artist, but she didn’t want to stay in an R&B lane sonically, either. Millie always wanted to explore rock and country. “Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares,” she shared in a conversation about her lesser-known music. “Tina Turner came through and (everyone) forgot about that.” We’ll get to Millie and Tina in a minute.

Because of her willingness to explore a wide range of music, Jackson’s cover song game rivals that of Luther Vandross. Starting with Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” Millie has put her stamp on hits from Prince, Toto, The Stylistics, even country artist Merle Haggerd. Jackson released her version of his hit “If We’re Not Back in Love on Monday” less than a year after its release, changing the title to “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and switching up the song from a story about a husband wanting to work it out with his wife, to a mistress encouraging a husband and his wife to try and reconcile.

10. She Intentionally Didn’t Seek Crossover Success

One of the reasons Millie is damn near an obscure artist given her long career and tremendous output is her is because she stayed in a blues and R&B pocket – on purpose. “I was never looking to become that crossover pop star,” she once explained. “Let white folks cross over to me.”

Critics searched for explanations over the years why such a talented singer with Muscle Shoals production wasn’t reaching the pop stardom soul singers like Gladys, Aretha and Tina had achieved, and they usually blamed her language and lyrical content. In 1977, the New York Times opined “…with just a bit more attention to hooks, she could have consistent hits. That wouldn’t constitute selling out, if she’s worried about that, and it would help convey the underlying seriousness of her art to a broader public.”

But Millie was happy to fly under the radar. It gave her more freedom. “When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator’s wife never knew I existed. So I didn’t have to go to Congress.” Jackson was talking about the 1985 congressional hearings spurred by the Parental Music Resource Center, an organization founded by Tipper Gore after she purchased Purple Rain for her daughter, and “Darling Nikki” made her clutch her pearls. Most remember the hearings for the eventual result of Parental Advisory warnings on albums just as rap was emerging, but pop artists were the initial target. Prince, Madonna, Frank Zappa, even the Mary Jane Girls were in the roundup. But not Jackson. “Nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

She did enjoy some pop success with Caught Up, but her biggest potential moment for a breakthrough was a 1985 duet with Elton John. Pop/soul duets were in fashion, but though the single was a moderate success in the UK, it never broke in the US.

11. She Has (Possibly One-Sided) Beef with Tina Turner

The two contemporaries Jackson has most been compared to vocally are Gladys and Tina – for example, Elton John approached Jackson for “Act of War” after Tina declined. Millie adores Gladys and counts the fellow Georgian among her favorite vocalists, but there’s something about Tina that just doesn't sit right with her. It’s unclear what the source of her dislike is, but I suspect it’s centered around Tina entering and dominating the rock/soul space as a solo artist just as Millie was plotting a move in that direction.

Jackson did finally record her rock-inspired album, titled Rock n’ Soul, in 1994. She told her audience at a Howard Theater show in 2012 she made the LP because “I wanted Tina Turner to know she wasn't the only black bitch to sing rock’n’roll.”

But then, according to Millie, Tina jacked her single. “I recorded (John Waithe’s) ‘Missing You,’ and I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single. And the guys at Muscle Shoals said, ‘Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop.” And I’m trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song when it won’t be out for two week. And of course, it was Tina Turner, and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.”

That was in the ‘90s, but Millie was throwing subs at Tina in the ‘80s. Jackson’s 1988 album The Tide is Turning included a song called “You Knocked the Love (Right Outta My Heart).” Listeners will easily hear the Ike and Tina influence in the song, but the track, a song about a passionate love turning into domestic violence, was a shot. “I did that one messin’ with Tina,” Jackson admitted in 2010. “It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn’t call any names.”

After Millie stopped recording in 2001, she didn’t retire. She spent 13 years hosting a drive time radio show, continued to tour (when she felt like it), and wrote and produced a stage play based on her album Young Man, Older Woman which toured successfully for four years.

Now she’s posted up at home in Atlanta, and a few years ago she was working on a reality show concept for her family (please, contents gods, let this happen while she still has the capacity to do it).

But Millie should be out here at these awards shows and tributes with her contemporaries. She should still be mixing it up with younger artists who emulate her energy without even realizing it (she loves Rihanna, by the way). Auntie Millie is deserving of far more recognition and praise than she’s received. Not just for her outrageous and explicit music and performances, but as a complete artist: as a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a creative, a pioneer. Alladat. Just because she didn’t go the route of No. 1 hits and stadium tours doesn’t make her any less accomplished. Respect Millie Jackson’s gangster.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Opinion: The College Cheating Scandal Proves Mediocrity Is The Dominant White Gene

There are two ways one can look at the recent college cheating scandal: You can choose to view it with a water is wet kind of amazement. The cutthroat world of Ivy League acceptance has been fraught with bribery and legacy admissions for years, so actresses Felicity Huffman, Full House’s Lori Loughlin, and 48 other business leaders cutting checks so their child can cut in line isn’t surprising. It’s the American way. (Depending on the complexion of the American, of course.)

Or you can view it for what it is: well-to-do white parents knowing their child isn’t good or smart enough to gain admission into the country’s top schools on their own, so they foot the bill. That’s correct, your mediocrity can’t cut it in the real world unless you sandwich it with your parent's money and your unearned whiteness.

Tuesday morning (March 12), breaking news revealed Huffman, Loughlin, and others paid up to $6.5 million in bribes to secure placement at Yale, University of Southern California (USC), Stanford and other top schools.

Orchestrated by William Rick Singer, the former head of college admission prep company The Key, parents would make handsome donations and Singer would ensure their child’s academic future in one of two ways: After payment was made to a secret account, Singer would either phone a Division 1 coach to secure an athletic credential despite the child not playing the sport.

Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli allegedly agreed to pay $500,000 for their two daughters to be recruits for USC’s crew team. To bolster the “admission” photos of the couple’s children on a rowing machine were sent.

Haters will say it’s photoshop...well, because, it was.

Or parents would pay between $15,000 to $75,000 for Singer to arrange certain exam proctors look the other way while 36-year-old Harvard Alum Mark Riddle aced the test. Riddle, who’s described by law enforcement as “just a really smart guy” faces several charges including conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Several coaches at elite schools, two SAT/ACT and college administrators, and an exam proctor all face federal fraud charges.

But yes, let’s talk about how Affirmative Action is the real culprit.

Education has long been a battleground in this country with white people (remember the Abigal Fisher case?) yielding the best the world has to offer, while slaves had to teach themselves to read by candlelight. Then activists and parents lose life and limb just so their child can be in the classroom with white peers during the civil rights movement.

Fast forward a few decades, minority students met with microaggressions by their white counterparts have long had to deny the belief they only merited a spot at a top tier academic institution via an athletic scholarship. Meanwhile, one student’s parents reportedly made a $1.2 million payment to get into Yale, and magically their child is a soccer star despite never kicking a ball.

America is in love with poverty, struggle, and strife. It appropriates our rhythm and fetishizes our blues. The land of the free and home of the brave has built dilapidated communities for its black and brown citizens and loves to tout success stories as proof “hard work” and “dedication” means you too can achieve the American dream. That all it really takes to gain acceptance into an Ivy League school is a “can-do” attitude and a little elbow grease.

Actually, it has nothing to do with elbow grease or a tenacious attitude. It has everything to do with students not being good enough and mommy and daddy making it all better with their money, fame, access, and influence.

Aunt Becky’s kid can’t compete with 17-year-old Mekhi Johnson from Baltimore who earned acceptance into all eight Ivy League schools. Felicity Huffman’s offspring can’t go bar for bar with Michael Brown from Houston’s Third Ward who worked tirelessly to get into Stanford and not only got into the university but 19 others, including Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, and Johns Hopkins.

Yes, boys and girls, unlike Brown’s namesake our children are deserving of the best and not just being shot down in the middle of a Ferguson street.

The brilliance is in the black and browness and your kids just don’t have it, but what you do have is power and you wield it sans grace. In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation for sending her children to a better school district in Ohio.

And if we’re not jailed for wanting better, we’re scrutinized for doing better. So while it’s ordinary for a white student to score high on a standardized test, Florida high school student Kamillah Campbell gets flagged for her 330 points SAT increase despite hiring a tutor and studying the Princeton Review Prep book seven months after initially taking the test.

Your privilege is putrid. Your hypocrisy makes my stomach turn. Your inability, as scripture notes, to see the plank in your own eye, has left you blind to your vile ways. How dare your child be so mediocre and you still deem it fit they deserve excellence?

The investigation is still open and law enforcement officials haven’t found evidence that support’s the idea one parent’s bribe may have bumped another student out of admissions. It’s also unclear if the students will have any legal actions taken against them.

I suspect the money that got the parents into this mess will be the money that will get them out of it. The rich stay rich the poor continue to struggle and the world goes round, right?

Right.

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