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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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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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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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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