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Songs Of Freedom: The Lasting Effects Of Buju Banton's "Long Walk" Concert

Buju Banton’s epic homecoming at Jamaica’s National Stadium ushers in a new era for reggae and dancehall music.

“My destination is homeward bound,” sang Buju Banton on stage at Jamaica’s National Stadium in the heart of Kingston. “Though forces try hold I down. Breaking chains has become the norm. I know I must get through no matter what a gwaan.” As the Grammy-winning reggae icon performed his song “Destiny,” a hit single from the 1997 album Inna Heights, the words took on added resonance due to the enormity of the occasion—a homecoming celebration for a living legend who’d been gone too long.

A crowd of more than 30,000 turned out to watch Buju launch his Long Walk To Freedom tour, named after Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. After much anticipation and speculation, Buju’s first performance since being released from federal prison in the U.S. could not have been held in a more fitting location. Jamaica’s National Stadium was the same place where Mandela addressed the people of Jamaica during his first visit to the island in July of 1991. Prior to Buju Banton, no other Jamaican artist headlined this prestigious venue since Bob Marley performed here at the One Love Peace Concert on April 22, 1978—when the Tuff Gong brought rival political leaders together onstage, demonstrating the power of reggae music.

“It was epic to see the amount of people that came to the stadium,” said dancehall superstar Sean Paul after the Buju show. “With Usain Bolt or with our football team, when the stadium is full we don’t see the field full as well. So to see that for one person—that was really amazing.”

 

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This historic performance was not the first time Buju ever appeared at the National Stadium. In December 1991 the rising dancehall star Wayne Wonder called out the tall, skinny, short-haired 18-year-old as a surprise guest during his own set on Sting, the annual Boxing Day stage show. “Nobody knew Buju,” recalls Donovan Germaine of Penthouse Records, who produced Buju’s early hits “Love Me Browning” and “Love Black Woman,” both of which were featured on his classic 1992 album Mr. Mention. “They heard the song but they had never seen him, so Wayne Wonder brought him onstage at Sting and then the world saw Buju Banton.”

That quick set back in 1991 was a mere glimpse of the greatness to come, and nearly three decades later the artist had come full circle. Witnessing Buju run through highlights of his extensive catalog backed by the 10-piece Shiloh Band left no question that one of reggae’s greatest artists was back in top form. Dressed in full white, Buju commanded the audience’s attention like no other act before him. Having given no official public appearances, interviews, and only a handful of statements on social media since his return home last December, Buju had the audience hanging on his every word. For many Buju fans, missing this once-in-a-lifetime event would be inexcusable.

Celebrities and music lovers alike snapped up all available plane tickets and flew in from all corners of the globe, creating a “Buju Boost” to the local economy. Jamaica’s ministry of tourism reported a 143 percent increase in arrivals to Kingston compared with the same day last year. All those fortunate enough to make it to the big show did so with great expectations—and they were not disappointed.

The opening acts at the Long Walk to Freedom concert were a mixture of veteran artists from Buju’s era like Ghost, Delly Ranx, and Cocoa Tea, more recent reggae stars like Etana, Romain Virgo, Christopher Martin, and Agent Sasco, and promising new talents like Buju’s son Jahaziel Myrie making his first major live appearance, rising star Koffee, who joined Cocoa Tea as a surprise guest, and Chronixx, who turned in a rousing performance with his Zinc Fence Redemption band just before Buju took the stage. Every one of the supporting acts rose to the occasion, performing as if they knew the whole world was watching. Many other top artists, from Tarrus Riley and Tony Rebel to Konshens, Govana, and Aidonia chilled backstage, soaking up the vibes.

Around 11 p.m. it was time for the main event. Emerging from his backstage tent wearing dark shades, Buju was mobbed by crowds of people straining for a glimpse as he made his way to the elevated stage. Escorted by a human chain of bodyguards, Buju strode with ease followed by longtime friend DJ Khaled and his wife Nicole Tuck. Khaled was one of Buju’s first overseas visitors and the two spent time in the recording studio in December, fueling speculation that Buju’s first new release may be included on Khaled’s forthcoming Father of Asahd album. The 100-yard walk to the stage seemed to take forever. Soon after Buju climbed the staircase a scuffle broke out at the foot of the stage. Khaled and his wife did finally make it through after some persistent efforts.

After a dramatic intro adapted from “Hate Me Now” by Nas, Buju entered the stage with words of prayer, going down on bended knee. From that moment forward, he sprinkled his performance with candid remarks that revealed his thoughts about all that he has been through, his hopes and plans for the future. “Now where we?” he remarked before launching into the first verse of his opening song, “Not an Easy Road.” Running through track after track—from “Close One Yesterday” to “Give I Strength,” and “Over Hills And Valleys”—Buju’s music spoke to the artist’s triumph over trials and tribulations.

Having had a long time to plan this concert, Buju’s care and preparation shone through in every detail. As he delved into harder-edged dancehall cuts like “Big It Up,” “Champion” and “Batty Rider,” he made a point of reaching out to a new generation of listeners. “Some of you might be pretty young—much too young to have been introduced to Buju Banton,” he said with a smile. “Hi, this is Mark Myrie aka Buju Banton. I’m sorry I didn’t met you earlier, due to unforeseen circumstances. However I’m here now. And I’m gonna take you back a little, to just educate you about the early ’90s, and how we dedicated ourselves to change the culture of our music, the direction of our music, and the quality of our music.”

After touching a few more dancehall classics, and giving props to some of those who helped him along the way, Buju applied a little pressure to Jamaica’s current wave of artists. “You guys are playing around today,” said the veteran hitmaker, sounding intent on restoring some order to the music. “We old folks ain’t gonna stand for it.”

One vintage cut that he did not perform was the infamous “Boom Bye Bye,” which Buju cut from his setlist well over a decade ago. Soon after his return from prison Buju voluntarily removed the song from all streaming platforms as well, a decisive move to make a fresh start and leave behind years of protests over the song. “After all the adversity we’ve been through,” Buju declared in a statement, “I am determined to put this song in the past and continue moving forward as an artist and as a man.”

As the evening built to a crescendo, Buju invited out a few special guests, the first of whom used to sing with Bob Marley as he performed his songs of freedom all over the world. “This is mother apart from my mother,” Buju said as he welcomed Marcia Griffiths, noting that she had been sending him words of encouragement since he was 17 years old. They shared a warm embrace and two powerful duets, “Closer To You” and “Stepping Out of Babylon.” Then Marcia made way for another icon of Jamaican music, the beloved soul man Beres Hammond.

Beres had been looking forward to this moment for years. Having recorded many great collaborations at Penthouse, the smooth singer and the rough-and-rugged DJ have a tradition of trading parts when they perform together live. Even during the years when Buju wasn’t able to join him in person, Beres would do his best to recreate his young friend’s gravelly roar.

“It’s been too long,” Beres said as he greeted Buju with a joyful hug. Buju replied that he had tried to visit, driving himself to the singer’s home, but got turned away. “I was asleep,” Beres replied with a smile, and soon they got down to business, trading parts on “Who Say” just like they used to do, and making the crowd fall in love all over again. As Beres declared, “This is a welcome party!”

The next guest artist on stage was Wayne Wonder, the very same singer who helped launch Buju’s career here in the National Stadium almost three decades earlier. “Dancehall massive we don't forget you,” Buju roared as the band launched into the “Real Rock” riddim and Wayne began singing “Forever Young,” a collaboration made famous on a dubplate for the Stone Love sound system. When Buju started his verse, “Tell them fi test wi now, if them feel them bad like we,” he drove his hardcore fans into a frenzy.

Wayne’s presence seemed to take Buju back to the essence, tapping into the magic that made the early ’90s such a special era in Jamaican music. Standing next to his old friend, Buju shared one of his most candid remarks of the night. “Even though Buju Banton lock up mi still rough,” he stated with a serious expression. “Eight years, six months, 27 days, 13 hours, five minutes, and 26 seconds.” Buju then proceeded to address rumors that he’d been sexually abused during his incarceration—refuting the notion with a fiery freestyle.

The “Long Walk to Freedom” concert will go down as a milestone for a mighty musical genre that was recently honored by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, highlighting its "contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity.” While Buju’s place in history is assured, many are hopeful that his triumphant homecoming may signal a new way forward for the future of the music. He returns to a reggae scene that’s experienced profound changes during his absence. Although the dancehall sound is obviously a powerful influence on international artists like Drake, Major Lazer, and Rihanna, the rise of “tropical house,” “island pop,” and Afrobeats has left reggae music’s mission at a crossroads.

While Buju did not hesitate to offer a critique of modern dancehall music, he did extend an invitation to UK dancehall artist Stefflon Don, hailing her as “very instrumental in taking our culture international.” Later in his set, he offered words of encouragement to the new generation. “I wanna say nuff respect to all the younger generation of youths who kept the music,” Buju stated. “We don’t kill champions, we raise them. We want you to know that Buju Banton love what you’re doing. We just want you to find your way, and change it up a bit, and make it… wholesome.”

Returning home to the biggest stage on the island, Buju not only silenced his critics and reasserted his place as one of Jamaica’s foremost artists, he also underscored what UNESCO described as “the basic social functions of the music — as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and a means of praising God." As he closed his set with a medley that included anthems like “Murderer,” “Driver A,” and “Psalms 23” with Gramps Morgan, Buju demonstrated the full potential of reggae music, leading by example.

Staring out at a stadium filled with bright lights, his shirt dripping with sweat, Buju used his platform to issue a powerful warning. “We are a nation that’s built on some spiritual foundation,” Buju told the massive audience. “The day we lose that is the day we are over, and we are edging closer and closer to the edge.” As he continues his Long Walk to Freedom tour—with stops planned in the Bahamas, Trinidad, Barbados, Tortola, and St. Kitts—Buju seems perfectly positioned to lead the music forward to higher heights.

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Bail Reform, Civil Rights, And Why Hip-Hop Journalists Need To Get Involved

The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.

As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.

In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.

Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.

For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court. 

As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.

“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons. 

“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”

Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers. 

With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing--and that’s just a few examples.

“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”

As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences. 

It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.

“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

 

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Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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