Thank God It's Friday
The music group The Commodores and actress Donna Summer on the set of the Columbia Pictures movie " Thank God It's Friday" in 1978.
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Music Sermon: Disco's Revenge - How Disco Demolition Night Sparked Evolution In Black Music

For years, disco was the black sheep of music genres. Characterized as schmaltzy and over the top, the sound of polyester suits, platform shoes, and strobe lights. With this iteration of the dance genre in our minds, it was easy to understand how and why the genre met a swift end 40 years ago.

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted “Disco Demolition Night,” now often referred to as the night disco died. Disco was the victim of a smear campaign, the effectiveness of which has only been seen again in music when 50 Cent destroyed Ja Rule’s career and Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune” killed T-Pain’s. But those were artists. This was an entire genre - a culture, ended by 50,000-plus mostly young, straight white men who were tired (and afraid) of something that wasn’t for or about them.

Music fans and historians have had a collective realization over the last couple of decades that the anti-disco sentiment was all spin. Not really about the music, but who the music represented: Black, Hispanic, Latinx and LGBTQ+ people and women – basically everybody except the bros holding onto classic rock for dear life. By the late ‘70s disco had, in fact, become overly formulaic and cheesy, but in the early days the sounds were lush and rich, the “four on the floor” 120 bpm tempo was infectious and irresistible. Disco created new lanes for DJs and producers, pioneered the modern nightclub/lounge scene (for better or worse), and gave fans license to just dance and be free on the floor. Most importantly, disco provided a sonic backdrop for a changing America, and that’s why Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and his fans were determined to kill it.

In the early ‘70s, marginalized communities were gaining voice and visibility. The “end” of the civil rights movement with the 1968 signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Stonewall Rebellion and subsequent repeal of a NY law forbidding men to dance with each other, and the rise of the women’s liberation movement changed the social conscience first in major cities, and soon the country. The rock and roll and protest music of ‘60s counterculture gave way to something new, especially in major urban metros: dance music.

On Valentine’s Day 1970, DJ David Mancuso threw an invite-only party at his downtown loft which turned into a weekly event, and eventually one of NYC’s hottest nightspots, The Loft. Mancuso’s parties were primarily meant as a safe space gay men, but attendance grew to anyone else who wanted to commune through dance. The Loft was the beginning of NYC disco club culture, and of the guest list-only nightspot. Studio 54 cranked that exclusivity up to create the velvet rope and table service scene we know today. Underground dance clubs like the Paradise Garage followed, niche community havens that served as an escape from the political and fiscal turmoil of the decade. Gay, Black, Hispanic, Latinx and some straight folks partied together all night, literally. The drugs and free love of hippy culture carried over to the scene, but there was usually no alcohol, until 54 opened. These first parties also broke some of the earliest disco hits, before they were called “disco.”

What we overlooked for years in disparaging convos about disco is that it was our music. Disco evolved from black and latin sounds; funk and soul with driving rhythm and layered instrumentation and production. James Brown’s bandleader Fred Wesley once called disco “funk with a bow-tie.” It was smoother and more polished than funk, but more complex than straight soul.
The proto-disco sounds that bridged the gap from soul to disco are largely attributed to two sources. The OG Barry White’s "Love's Theme" (which Barry composed and arranged; please put some respect on his name), is considered one of the first “disco” hits. That big sweeping sound he created with the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra was a trademark of early disco songs. By the time “Love’s Theme” hit radio, it had already been in the clubs for about six months.

Philly Soul architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are also credited as laying the foundation for the early disco sound. Philly soul was soul with a kick - a little extra percussion. A few more layers on the instrumentation. A little uptick on the rhythm. A bit more bass. It was danceable. You had to move!

MFSB’s “Love is the Message” (on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International) became a favorite of the early disco set. It was the unofficial theme song of The Loft, a favorite of The Paradise Garage’s famous DJ Larry Levan, and fans of FX’s POSE will remember Pray Tell insisting the song be played nonstop at the balls for weeks, because it reminded him of the simpler, carefree years before the AIDS epidemic hit the community.

In 1972, Manusco found a super obscure import in a Brooklyn record store and started playing it at his parties, then other DJs started bootlegging it to play at their parties. Frankie Crocker, one of the most influential black radio DJs of the 70s, heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and put it on rotation on NY’s WBLS. Atlantic Records - the one label that never missed a black music moment - licensed the song from Dibango’s original label and released a reissue. In the Summer of ’73, the song became the first official disco song to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

Disco wasn’t just Saturday Night Fever moves, especially pre-commercial peak. It was also pop-locking, the bump, roller skating jams - a lot of music we never stopped listening to, but just consider dance music, soul classics, cookout music, Soul Train line joints… We always just called it something else.

Disco also brought back hand-dancing (or couple’s dancing), which had disappeared in popular music after “The Twist” took over dancefloors in 1960. We’ve all seen old heads (or, if you’re my age, tried to get in with the old heads) getting their dance on and just watched in awe of how graceful, effortless and fun it looks. This ain’t nothin’ but the hustle.

Now that we’ve established that disco started as soul and funk with a little extra on it, let’s talk about how disco’s impact endures. Disco is short for “discotheque” - literally translated to "music library." Named as such because records were the focus at discotheques instead of live music. DJs controlled the room, and quickly became crucial to breaking a record. Songs started in the club, not at radio. DJ pools - which later became essential to hip-hop - were created during the disco era to get new songs and mixes out to the clubs as soon as possible.

In NY, DJs started remixing for the first time, extending the best parts (breakbeats, etc) of the hottest songs to keep the crowd in the moment (I still think NY DJs put together the most cohesive music sets because it’s in their DNA, but that’s another sermon), and eventually the 12” version was born. Or in the case of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You,” the 16:50 opus.

Disco also elevated the music producer. Rather than pairing one or two people/teams with an artist for the majority of a project, or automatically using label-affiliated producers, producers became sought after talent for their sounds. They were tapped for a song or two, or some had songs ready and just and needed to find the right vocalist. Producers were beginning to break artists, and the vocal stars were overwhelmingly black women. Church-bred black vocalists, to be exact.

Sounds were about agency, freedom, sexuality, belonging, surviving on their own terms, and they became anthems for the gay rights movement.

Disco allowed for a freedom of identity not seen before in popular culture. Androgyny, fluid and open sexuality, excess and camp. The more outrageous, the better, if that was your thing. Only in disco could an openly gay, COGIC-raised black man like Sylvester transcend from drag shows to superstardom.

As big as disco was growing in cities like NY, Philly and Chicago, it was still a somewhat niche culture. With disco came a level of glamour and opulence that the average American joe wasn’t ready to lean into yet… plus many still saw it exclusively as gay culture. Then, in 1977, “Staying Alive” and Saturday Night Fever changed everything.

Saturday Night Fever marked that tipping point all good things hit once the masses come on board. The movie framed disco around a straight, white (Italian) blue-collar worker and white artists (the Bee Gees). Now it was palatable. The movie and soundtrack were both massively successful, and by 1979 disco had evolved from a cosmopolitan culture to a national scene. Discos started opening in small-town USA, and labels rushed to have any artists who hadn’t dipped their toes into disco yet to record a dance track. Even hardcore rock and pop stars - like Dolly Parton, Sinatra, the Rolling Stones - some with less success than others - all tried their hand. Rod Stewart hates disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” but it’s one of his biggest songs, so no matter how often he’s tried to take it out of his tours in latter years, fans want it.

Disney and The Muppets even got in on the disco craze, probably encouraged by Rick Dees’ 1978 utterly ridiculous, completely novelty No. 1 hit “Disco Duck.”

If we’re keeping it a buck, though, I had the Sesame Street Fever album, and it was a jam. Larry Levan ain’t just hop on any ol’ thing.

Ironically, the Bee Gees never set out specifically to create a disco sound, but they became synonymous with the genre. All of their songs for Saturday Fever had been recorded before the movie was made. But the affiliation defined them for the rest of their careers, and they hated it. "The media made it as if people were afflicted with {disco}," Maurice Gibb told The Washington Post when the group finally reunited to tour a decade later. "And then there were the Village People, 'Disco Duck' and 'Kung Fu Fighting,' all these stupid, silly records that were based on what we were doing but nowhere near it...Unfortunately, it cheapened what we did."

The phase of “stupid, silly records” is what comes to mind when most think of disco, but this was also when disco was at its peak. It was supplanting rock n’ roll as the sound of America, and straight white men started developing that anxiety that straight white men get whenever something isn’t centered around straight white men (see: everything happening in US politics right this moment). The anti-disco movement found an unlikely leader in a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl. Dahl was a chubby, awkward guy with a baby on the way, when his station manager called him into his office on Christmas Eve 1978 to tell him the station was converting to an all disco format at the top of the year. It was like the moment in comic books when the otherwise normal person becomes a villain.

Dahl got another gig at Chicago classic rock station The Loop, but fed his animosity towards disco with daily segments where he’d “blow up” a disco record on air. He built a following, the Coho Lips: a group of young white men who, according to Dahl, “want(ed) to wear our t-shirts and our jeans. And we (didn’t) want to have to wear white three-piece suits to get laid.” (It’s like “economic anxiety”, but with clothes.)

He started hosting anti-disco events, first clad in Hawaiian shirts and then in full military uniform and helmet, where he’d lead enthusiastic chants of “Disco sucks!” as he broke albums over his head. The Chicago White Sox’s owner’s son was a fan, and suggested a co-promotion for a game: fans would bring a disco record to destroy in between doubleheaders, for a discounted admission price of $0.98 cents. The event at first seemed a huge success - over 50,000 fans showed up with reports of 10,000 more outside trying to get in. But after Dahl appeared in an army jeep to set off the dumpster full of vinyl, things went left.

The firepower was stronger than anticipated and destroyed the field, pieces of vinyl started flying all over the place like missiles. The crowd descended from the stands, first in revelry, but then it became more like a riot. People set seats on fire, lit a bonfire in the middle of the field, threw bottles and albums. Players were barricaded in the locker rooms, staff was ordered to evacuate, and the police came to shut it all down.

People were rightfully horrified at the scene, recalling book-burning and dystopian warnings from Bradbury. But Dahl has consistently maintained that Disco Demolition Night wasn’t homophobic or racial, instead calling it a “joyous heat-and-beer-infused celebration” and “one of the greatest radio promotions in history.”

Chicago house pioneer Vincent Lawrence was a 15-year old usher at Comenski field that night, and remembers it differently. He first noticed that people weren’t just bringing disco records to destroy, but black music period. “There’s Marvin Gaye records. And Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. Records that were black records,” he recounted on Gimlet Media’s Undone podcast. He tried to enforce a strict disco rule for the discount, but his boss overrode him. Later, as the melee grew on the field, Lawrence found himself confronted by anti-disco folks. “There were just angry people running up to me, getting in my face saying disco ducks, disco sucks,” he shared. “A kid came up to me and took a 12-inch disk and broke it right in my face. It was like a Marvin Gaye 12-inch or something like that. And I didn’t understand it,
until much later, that that was just hate, and that they were directing it at me because I was black and the record was black.”

Disco Demolition Night became a national news story, and by 1980, disco was passe. The anti-disco militia had accomplished their goal; the genre practically disappeared from the airwaves, and punk, new wave and pop took over radio. But disco didn’t really die. It morphed. The underground house music scene immediately started bubbling in Chicago with a sound that was basically stripped down disco. In fact, house pioneer Frankie Knuckles called it “disco’s revenge,” but also thought, as he told music writer Jon Savage, a rebirth was necessary. “Those guys declaring disco being dead actually was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because (the culture) had to turn itself, because it‘d just gotten too much.”

Vince Lawrence, who was working at Disco Demolition Night to save money for a synthesizer, co-wrote and produced what are considered the first house record, “On and On,” with DJ Jesse Saunders.

Some acts made the seamless transition to boogie music; the mellow, groovier side of disco.

Disco and house are the roots for so much of hip-hop, latin freestyle, techno and electronica, and now EDM. The name may have been tarnished, but the culture simply evolved, even as straight white men continue to fight the advance of anything “other” with all their might. At the core, great disco songs are just great songs. They inspire, they encourage, they speak to you, and they make you dance with abandon. How can anybody hate on that?
Disco legend Gloria Gaynor summarized disco’s legacy for Vanity Fair: “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music.”

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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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Engraving shows the arrival of a Dutch slave ship with a group of African slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What The Year 1619 Means To Me

I have very mixed feelings about the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves, my ancestors, to Jamestown, Virginia. It is because I know well American history, and it is because while a visiting scholar at James Madison University in Virginia earlier this year, I decided to make my first trip to Jamestown. I know what I had been taught from grade through high school about this momentous date. I barely was taught anything else about slavery, how my ancestors had been stolen from Africa, stripped of their names, languages, cultures, identities. But I knew, minimally, they were not “indentured servants,” as there was never a choice to not be a slave. I knew that from 1619 to 1865, 246 long and soul-stripping years, they were beaten, raped, terrorized, reduced to human property, and killed as they, these profoundly wounded persons, literally built the economic infrastructure of America for free.

As I walked through that Jamestown settlement, I could feel the energy of those first slaves. I struggled to read the history the way it was told in parts, as if slavery was not so bad. Yes, it was so bad, as we still deal with the legacy of it in America. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners even as they were declaring all were created equal. Several of the early presidents of the United States participated in slavery. Much of what slaves were taught continue to trigger Blacks, from divisive conflicts around skin color to our diets, born of necessity and desperation on those plantations, that wreak havoc on our health. 1619 means, to me, the mental brainwashing and physical and spiritual devastation of an entire race of people, and that truism undermined the morality of America right from the very beginning; and we are paying the price for it in this 21st century when we see so many trafficking in the same kind of hatred, violence, and fear-mongering that was levied against my ancestors back then.

What we need in America, what has not happened, is an honest national conversation on race that tells the entire truth about the legacy of slavery, while also acknowledging that, per Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s landmark book They Came Before Columbus, the history of this part of the world does not and did not begin with European history, that Black people and other people of color have been in these many spaces and places all along. What we need in America at schools, public and private, and from educators of every background, are lessons which do not whitewash slavery, which do not ask Black children, when discussing slavery, to be slaves. What we need in America is a steady gaze in the mirror, accepting that inseparable of any talk about history, about democracy, from 1619 to the Civil War to Dr. King to Black Lives Matter, is the story of those who were brought here as slaves, and how that painful legacy of White supremacist thinking and behavior remains a nasty open sore on the American democracy.

I did not think about any of this until I got to college, because in spite of being a straight-A student K through 12, 1619 and what it wrought was watered down— nor were we ever taught the Civil Rights Movement and its efforts to right the wrongs, ever. As a result, I grew up as dutifully self-hating as a Black slave on those plantations. It was not just me; it was most Blacks in my community. It was not until I got to that college, Rutgers University in my home state of New Jersey, and began to truly study American history through a different lens—my lens—that it blew me away what slavery had done to us.

I cried reading slave narratives and historical texts. I cried as I imagined what it must have felt like to be un-free for one’s entire life. I cried at how ashamed I had been for so long of Africa, of how I had swallowed whole the distorted and racist images of that motherland from whence my people had come. And yes, I cried that day earlier this year when I walked the grounds of Jamestown wondering to myself how any people enslaved could still manage to worship God; to build and create numerous inventions; to put forth songs and sounds that are the foundation for much of American music; to be so patriotic that we have fought in virtually every American war, even as we were being denied our own freedoms; and to be so humanly resilient that we have bounced back time and again, even as what began in 1619 birthed, for many of us, including my single mother and me, generations of poverty and hand-me-down depression and traumas we can never seem to escape. This is why there have been calls for reparations from we descendants of African slaves across decades and eras. There has never been a true and consistent repairing of the human damage done—

So, if 1619 should mean anything now, it should mean it is past time to pause, to be equally comfortable and uncomfortable in our American skins, as we face this tragic history, and ourselves, once and for all. Otherwise, it is just another celebration, another anniversary, that will fade away like the haunting cries of those packed at the bottom of those slave ships so long ago.

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Kevin Powell is a civil and human rights activist, and author of 13 books including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. An upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global pop culture and hip-hop icon.

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L-R: La La Anthony, Lela Loren, and Naturi Naughton
Karl Ferguson Jr.

The Truth, The Whole Truth And Nothing But The 'Power'

Originally, Courtney A. Kemp wanted to call her Starz scripted drama The Price. She pulled the name from a teaching associated with Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program that proclaims pain is the price of admission to a new life.

“We were going to show coke on a scale and then the dollar amount,” she said. “So, the price would’ve been the price of the drugs, but also the price you have to pay to get a new life.”

It was about a drug dealer in recovery who had a sponsor, but the execs instructed Kemp to take out the recovery aspect. After doing some thinking, she realized her project was less about how much one has to pay and more about how much control one doesn’t actually have.

“At its core, it’s about powerlessness,” she said. “So, I called the show Power.”

Sitting at a cherry wood table inside a plush private dining space at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Kemp reveals her attraction to the pursuit of power stems from her childhood. Growing up in the affluent, white burg of Westport, Connecticut, her ultimate wish was to have complete, ever-elusive dominion.

“I grew up in an abusive household, and all I wanted was to be able to control my parents. All I wanted was to be able to control my [older] brother. I didn’t want him to leave and go to college. I was a black kid in a white town.”

Kemp lets the words “abusive household” roll off her tongue with a sense of normality that denotes she’s accepted the home she was raised in.

There were a few other kids of color in the area, but eventually, they moved, leaving little Courtney by her lonesome, prompting her to escape into a world where she would have the final say, seeking -- and finding -- her power peak in writing and storytelling.

“That’s always the writer’s question: What if? What if? But it also goes to a sense of powerlessness. I can’t make it like I want it to be, and one of my biggest character defects is that I like to control people,” Kemp said. “So, what does that turn into? That turns into writing people because I can actually make them go places. ‘Interior. Ghost’s apartment. Day. Tasha enters.’ I can make them say things. It’s control. Power comes to the essence of control. Controlling your universe, controlling your environment.”

Kemp may have realized early on she likes to control people, but it was before recovery in 2007, when a “shift,” as she calls it, occurred, and she learned she isn’t a puppet master.

“There have been times in my life, not now, when I was much more likely to use deception to get my way. After a certain point in my life, I accepted the fact that I cannot get my way. There’s really no way to control the universe. We’re powerless over what happens next. You can be sitting in your kitchen, and a stray bullet could whiz through the window, and you’re dead, and that’s nothing you did wrong.”

VIBE: What specifically happened in 2007 that made you realize you can’t control anything?

Courtney A. Kemp: I’m probably not going to answer that question.

I don’t push for an explanation or re-work the question in hopes to dupe her into answering. Her no was a full sentence, said with intention and boundary. All she reveals is things changed for her spiritually placing her on the path to where she is now.

And today, Courtney Kemp sits at the top of her Power empire. With the help of executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Kemp birthed a crime drama about James St. Patrick, also known as Ghost, a man living a dual life as a drug dealer-turned-nightclub owner trying to leave the streets he’s littered with dope for the legitimate world of New York City nightlife. Kemp and the rest of the Power writers boldly explore the ramifications of manipulation, duplicity, and lies.

Kemp is deliberate with her words. She’s survived whatever recovery she’s hush about and, in turn, has become a forthright woman with steadfast conviction. She ferociously defends characters who’ve merited ire from fans, (“I will go toe-to-toe with you about Holly”) and doesn’t show a bit of remorse when discussing beloved characters killed off the show (“If you ask me if I regret killing Raina, no. Period.”)

So, it’s interesting that with all her truth, Kemp finds liars to be “fascinating.”

“They always get caught. No one ever doesn’t get caught,” she said. “It’s such a fool’s errand. It’s amazing to me. If you run a full game, a full deception, eventually, you’ll get caught. That always happens. It never doesn’t. I have to use a double negative. It never doesn’t happen. So, it’s fun for me.”

Premiering in June 2014, Power--which stars Omari Hardwick in the principal role, along with a diverse cast of characters exhibiting unscrupulous and deceitful behavior -- received noticeable fanfare on social media and earned solid ratings during Season One. After being greenlit for a sophomore season, the secret couldn’t be contained any longer, and new fans were curious to learn what the hubbub was about while old fans awaited lustily to see how things would play out. Now, five years later, Kemp is ready to bring this street tale to an end.

“I don’t want to be a show that drags on for nine or 10 seasons, and there’s no story to tell. This story is over. It begets the next story, but this story is over, and I wanted to pay it true homage and give it the respect it needed. When people say ‘Oh, I want more seasons,’ what they’re saying is they want more of the same, but you can’t do the same story over and over again. Some things have to end.”

Kemp is 42, with a round, warm face and shoulder-length black hair. She often tucks a few strands behind her ear when getting into the nitty-gritty of show talk. Her smile is wide, her skin clear. As a busy mother, creator and showrunner of a hit cable-network drama, the bags one would assume should be under her eyes are noticeably not there. She shies away from compliments about her skin, stating she’s wearing great makeup but admits she’s intense about skincare.

As she sits with her legs crossed, Kemp is relaxed yet alert. Donning a calf-length one-sleeved black dress, she’s removed her gold strappy high heels for nude ballet flats. She’s just finished her first VIBE photoshoot, and the excitement of it all begins to settle in.

In 2016, VIBE spoke with Kemp inside her Brooklyn offices about the show’s success prior to its Season Three premiere, the conversation’s focus being its leading men, Ghost (Hardwick), Dre (Rotimi Akinosho), Tommy (Joseph Sikora) and Kanan (50 Cent). Three years later, it’s the women's turn and Kemp is just as eager to give the ladies their well-earned shine: Naturi Naughton, who plays Tasha; Alani “Lala” Anthony, who plays LaKeisha, and Lela Loren, who plays U.S. federal prosecutor Angela Valdes, have all contributed to the delicious mess that is Power.

In past interviews, Kemp has stated Tommy’s character was always supposed to be a white boy. (Interestingly, Andy Bean who played Agent Greg Knox originally tried out for the role. Kemp said “his audition was f**king bananas,” but Knox wasn’t physically on par with Hardwick’s muscular stature making him look more like a little brother than an equal.) I asked her if she, in turn, intentionally envisioned a white Latina to embody the role of Angela, a question that merited furrowed eyebrows and a bristled response.

“Okay, so, first of all, I push back on ‘white Latino.’ I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what that is. I don’t even know what that’s saying. What is a white Latino? There are people who consider themselves white Latinos; I guess that’s a thing I’ve never heard about before. Being from the East coast, so many people are Afro-Latino, so I don’t know what a white Latino would be.”

“However, [Angela] was always Puerto Rican.” Kemp continued. “One of the people I looked at ... I looked at Elizabeth Rodriguez. We looked at Monique Gabriela Curnen, who played other parts on the show, so we were going after Puerto Rican actresses. That’s what I wanted. Puerto Rican, no matter how they showed up. Again, I really don’t like that term ‘white Latino.’ I don’t even … how does that even work? I’m not going to even ask you those questions; I’m just confused. It was always to try and find someone who was Puerto Rican.”

She describes Angela as a woman with flint to move through the ranks of a masculine work environment, but also a woman who possesses a girly-tenderness. According to Kemp, Lela Loren has both.

“You have to have a certain amount of f**king flint to get through law school, and then you have to have a certain amount of flint to get through what are highly masculine, male-dominated environments when you talk about attorney’s offices and state attorneys and cops and law enforcement. These women are not shy, and I needed someone who could stand up to Omari,” Kemp said.

“When she fought with Omari, you felt her in the room, and we needed someone also with the softness to still have that little-girl sense of love. To still be in love with her first love. Lela had this very specific quality.”

Admittedly, Lela Loren isn’t good with names, but she makes up for her absentmindedness with hugs and cheek kisses. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” she asks while offering an embrace without leaving hints of red lipstick on the side of my face. The 39-year-old who grew up in northern California and Mexico is all smiles this Saturday afternoon. The Beverly Hills sun is kind, and a faint breeze blows through her newly cut shoulder-length bob. Loren runs her fingers through her mocha hair, confessing she wanted it shorter, but instead exercised restraint.

On Power, AUSA Angela Valdes knows nothing of holding back. Loren describes her character as a woman ultimately led by her heart, so much so, her tenacity and ability to color outside of the lines have caused many to question what ethics if any, she abides by. Loren said she understands the methodology behind Angela, but never personally subscribed to it.

“How you get something done is as important as getting it done. Ultimately, for me, it’s about the process. Keeping your integrity, who you are as an individual, how you achieve your goals, is as important as achieving your goals,” she said.

Loren is laid back and present. After posing with co-stars Naughton and Anthony, she kicks off her white Sergio Rossi pumps and wiggles her toes a bit before sitting pretzel-style on lawn furniture outside of the Four Seasons’ Il Posto Room.

Leaning forward with a glass of champagne in hand, ready for questions, Loren thinks before she speaks, often looking into the distance to draw on words to formulate her response, but after talking with her, it’s not hard to imagine her as a journalist, or an educator like her parents. She describes herself as a little nerdy and a voracious reader who’s found joy in Yuval Noah Harari’s 2015 novel Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind.

Valdes has a badge and a gun; Loren has a cat and a garden. Her real-life doesn’t mimic the one she plays on television, which has been delicious -- and also a bit daunting.

“The best part about playing Angela has been all of her wonderful contradictions. It’s so fun to try to find the through-line of someone that has such extremes. She can be so defensive and so manipulative. Then, at the same time, she can be so soft and fragile and almost pathetic,” she said earnestly. “But the hardest part about playing Angela has been realizing that in the outer world, there’s still a very narrow lane for women. As soon as a woman steps outside of that lane, fictional or otherwise, a lot comes at you.”

For five seasons, Angela was the woman partly responsible for breaking up the St. Patrick household, and for some viewers, that’s all they can see. They don’t see Angela’s ambition or persistence or that while leading a drug task force, she’s also caring for her sick father. If Angela’s reputation plucks at Loren’s nerve, she doesn’t show it.

“I think what playing Angela or being on Power really helps me understand is how you can only tell half the story because the audience inevitably brings the other half. No matter how clear you try to make that story, how it resonates with them or how they interpret it, they’re really feeling the narrative. Even times when people would take a scene and how I believe Courtney intended it, how I intended to play it and how it landed on them are so different. In some ways, you have to surrender to this lack of control because we’re only telling half the narrative. The other half is from the viewer.“

Kemp knows things may be changing, but when casting the show, she intentionally wanted a woman to play opposite Hardwick who wouldn’t traditionally be thought of for the role.

“I did look for a brown-skinned woman to play Tasha because at that time -- this is not relevant as much -- but at that time, there were no brown-skinned women on TV playing the beautiful, sexy part. Now, if you remember from the beginning, Tasha was always smart, but Tasha was the gorgeous one,” Kemp said. “I wanted that beauty, sensuality, responsibility and that partnership. Ghost and Tasha were partners, and I wanted all of that from a brown-chocolatey person.”

Naturi Naughton is an even five-feet high, but she has a six-foot-tall personality. On set, the 35-year-old doesn’t wait for direction from photographer Karl Ferguson Jr.; instead, she narrows her eyes during one frame, purses her lips in the next or crosses her ankles, leans forward and with her body says: “I’m here.” Beyonce’s “Formation” plays in the dimly lit 1,000-square-foot room, and Naughton -- in her figure-hugging, red velvet Galvan London dress -- pops against the slate-grey seamless backdrop. The singer-actress oozes confidence with every flash from Ferguson’s camera.

The assurance booming from Naughton is a far cry from when fans are introduced to Tasha during the Season One opener. As Mrs. St. Patrick walks into Club Truth with Ghost on her arm, the first time Tasha opens her mouth, she needs to be affirmed by her husband.

“Tell me I’m beautiful,” she says as she leans her head onto Ghost’s shoulder. He replies: “You already know you are.” But in later seasons, viewers realize Tasha actually didn’t know.

“Tasha was looking for Ghost to validate her, which is why she says, ‘Tell me I’m beautiful.’ The truth is she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. She doesn’t know who she is without him,” Naughton said. “In Season One, she was lacking a bit of self-confidence. She was lacking maturity. I feel like over the seasons, to now, she grew up. Six seasons later, she’s now like: ‘Okay, who am I without you?’ I think she’s gained self-confidence, and she’s unapologetic about the kind of woman she is. As opposed to looking for him to tell her she’s enough, Tasha now knows she’s enough.”

Her character’s new confidence runs parallel with where Naughton is in her own life. As a single mom to her two-year-old daughter, Zuri, Naughton has weathered her own storms, however, the new layer of thick skin didn’t come easy.

“I’m a woman now,” Naughton reflects. “A lot of it had to do with motherhood and relationships that I’ve been in, break-ups and heartbreak. I feel I learned a lot through some of those hardships and about what it’s like to love and not love, to be in love, to fall out of love, to have a child, to be raising a two-year-old. It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be a strong woman to do that.”

“I’ve grown up because the show gave me an opportunity to grow. This character is so complex, and she has so many different dimensions. I’m a big girl now,” Naughton says with a smile. “I’m really proud of myself. I used to be hard on myself. I still am, but I’m proud of myself because I worked hard, and I’ve done it for six seasons. I was breastfeeding while shooting Season Five, and that’s hard work. I think I’ve allowed myself to feel proud of myself. And as a woman, we should do that.”

Tasha’s character received praise for being Ghost’s “ride-or-die” wife, which hasn’t always been easy for the character. Yet after five years of being loyalty-ish -- Tasha was married when she had her affairs with Shawn and Terry Silver -- Naughton says her definition of loyalty has expanded since walking in Tasha’s stilettos.

“There are a lot of different ways to stay loyal or be loyal, but to also see when loyalty is betrayed, how do you come back from that? [In] Season One, Ghost starts cheating on Tasha with Angela, and then lies to her in Season Two and says he’s going to end it, but he continues to lie to her and Tariq and with Kanan,” Naughton said.

“It’s so many different areas where she feels like the loyalty has been lost, but she continues to ride for him. That’s a deep wife-level loyalty that I have yet to experience because Tasha has been riding for Ghost, even when he was in jail, but I admire that in a way. She never jumps ship. She didn’t bail on him when things got tough.”

As Tasha stood by Ghost’s side throughout his philandering, the sole person loyal to Mrs. St. Patrick was LaKeisha. Played by Alani “La La” Anthony, Kemp made it obvious only one woman was truly benefiting from the friendship, while the other may have received a hand-me-down Yves Saint Laurent purse here or there. If loyalty is considered a weakness in the world of Power, Keisha’s back may sport the biggest target.

“I think it’s a very complicated friendship. I think it’s hard to be friends with somebody when you’re jealous or you want their life. That’s why things between the two of them get so tricky as the seasons go on, and especially in this last season because there is a real friendship there, but there is an underbelly of jealousy,” Anthony explains. “I feel like [Tasha has] never been a real friend to Keisha the way Keisha’s been to her.”

Anthony dissects the push-and-pull of LaKeisha and Tasha’s relationship donning an Area gunmetal cocktail dress and strappy Gusseppie Zanotti open-toe heels. While walking to a quiet location away from the chatter of the photoshoot, the sun hits her dress, and she sparkles. Her hazel-green eyes shimmer and her hair is the perfect amalgamation of blonde, honey and brown streaks. Before the interview begins, she requests an iced tea. La La, as she’s professionally known, or La, as she’s called by close friends, can best be described as the homie -- the very gorgeous, humble homie -- who’s just as comfortable in full glam as she is in a pair of Air Force Ones.

Kemp maintains every character on Power has agency and always has a chance to leave the situation. She especially underscores this when speaking about LaKeisha.

“We’ve given LaKeisha a lot of opportunities not to double down with Tommy. She can peel off at any moment, and she doesn’t. In [Episode] 409, he comes, and he begs her: ‘Can I run my money through your shop again?’ She mushes him and says ‘Tommy, get out of my face!’ And then she goes back to him.”

For Anthony, the most challenging part about bringing Keisha to life wasn’t her unwavering allegiance: It was her ignorance’s marriage to it. How could she not see or feel she was receiving the short end of the stick while offering friends and lovers the rod?

“I think Keisha can be naive at times. You just want to slap her,” Anthony said smacking the air. “Even that scene when she told Tommy: ‘You’ve never killed anyone, right?’ It’s those moments. It doesn’t make it difficult; it’s just understanding her perspective and why she thinks like that. I think we all know a LaKeisha. We’ve had a LaKeisha as a friend or we know somebody [like her].”

Anthony sips her tea and ponders some more about LaKeisha’s obedience to the game and to Tasha. She knows that’s where she and her character differ.

“[LaKeisha] is a loyal friend, and I consider myself a loyal friend. I think a lot of times, her kindness gets taken for granted because she is willing to do anything to help friends and to help Tommy. I don’t want to take that in my life. I don’t like for kindness to be taken for weakness, but I definitely want to be a loyal friend. I am the type of person to be that for the people I love.”

Anthony’s voice is raspy but welcoming. She’s professional and personal. Her legs are crossed and her back is straight. She offers nothing about her personal life. I also don’t ask. The only tea she spilled is that she doesn’t allow her 12-year-old son, Kiyan, to watch Power.

“He’s tried a million times but he’s not allowed to watch. He’s 12. I don’t think a 12-year old should be watching Power. People can disagree with me, but that’s how I feel.”

Portraying LaKeisha has given Anthony a perspective she didn’t have prior to landing the role. Now she has a clearer understanding of relationships and why people do what they do.

“Playing Keisha has given me more of an understanding of women, relationships and friendships. Not that I was ever judgemental, but we’re always so quick to say, ‘Well, that will never be me,’ and the next thing you know it is you.” she said flatly. “I always say everyone doesn’t know what they’ll do until they’re in that situation. Keisha is giving me more of an understanding. You have to look at someone’s background, why they think the way they do, why they function the way they do. This is all from childhood or how we were raised. It gives me more understanding when I’m talking to other women.”

***

Thirty-five minutes have passed since the start of the interview with Kemp. I push for two more questions and her publicist pushes back with two more minutes. When we began, Kemp hesitantly accepted compliments on the show’s run, noting that despite the hard work, long hours on set and the writing, she credits its success to something bigger.

“It’s hard because people keep saying that to me, and I don’t know what they’re congratulating me for, in a way, because it’s God’s will how many people watch the show,” she said. “I cannot compel that.”

Viewers have been tuning in -- on Sundays in the summer, no less -- because they’re that invested in the lives of the characters Kemp created. As a byproduct of that, life is no longer the same.

“Everything’s different,” she said somberly. “Everything is different. I think maturity and experience put lines on your face and grays in your hair for a reason, and I’ll leave it like that.”

As the woman penning the scenes portrayed onscreen, Kemp’s work is more recognizable than she is. When out and about in New York with series regular and boyfriend Michael J. Ferguson, she jokes she’s often asked by fans to take pictures of him with them. In California, they’re even more aloof.

“In L.A, nobody knows. In fact, sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, Courtney, have you been working?' ”

After five seasons, Power’s mountain of manipulations and powdered substance will collapse and crash in the series’ final run, normally a 10-show stretch that Kemp and Co. are splitting into two: Part One whets appetites with 10 hour-long episodes that premiere Sunday, Aug. 25, and the remaining five arrive in January 2020. Anyone left standing at the onset of this new season may be in a body bag by the end of it all. Kemp has proven in the past that her loyalty is to the story, not to any singular character. So, all bets -- if they were ever on -- are truly off.

Eager fans will see how it all plays out when we tune into Starz to hear those three scrumptious words we’ve been waiting for all year:

“Previously on Power…”

***

Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler

Makeup Artists: Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), and Sheika Daley (La La Anthony)

Hair Stylists: Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)

Wardrobe Stylists: Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Cincinnati Music Festival Showcases The Breadth Of Black Community Building

It’s 2 p.m. on a balmy July Friday and, for a rare moment during a weekend that promises to be anything but still, Cincinnati’s Fountain Square feels quiet. A bronze statue with water free-falling from its palms marks the center of the city’s Downtown meeting place, and around the fountain’s edge, a smattering of passersby are sitting down to rest. Within the rest of the square, colorful booths manned by brown faces decorate the periphery. Tables and hangers and mannequins boast crafts both handmade and imported: skirts, dresses and crinkled fans made from ethnic prints, life-size framed artwork, shimmering jewelry, (possibly) designer handbags and bedazzled graphic tees boasting Sankofa symbols and phrases like “Thick Thighs Save Lives” and “Black 365.” These vendors are a blend of native Ohioans and those from other U.S. cities who can’t help but flock to Cincinnati during one of the area’s most festive times of the year.

Consider this the calm before the storm. By this same time tomorrow, the square will be teeming with activity orchestrated by Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Vibe Cincinnati platform. The hum of gentle chatter will be replaced by the boom of music from a stage occupied by community performers, and crowds will gather in front of it to film the music or two-step to it with impromptu dance partners. Those not keen on the heat will seek refuge from the sun beneath the shade of a table umbrella, or line-up up at the plethora of food trunks for some nourishment. And then at night, the masses will retreat to the seats of Paul Brown Stadium to partake in the festival that has served as a magnet for the black community for over half a century.

When you think of the bulk of festival season mainstays—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza—a low-key city like Cincinnati may not come to mind. But perhaps that’s because for 57 years, Cincinnati Music Festival, presented by P&G, has remained one of the Midwest’s best kept secrets. The longstanding festival, dubbed the largest urban music festival in the country, is molded for R&B, soul and funk lovers, many of whom travel from the likes of Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Chicago, Texas, California, and Atlanta to experience it firsthand. (This year’s lineup included Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tamia, the men of New Edition and more.)

“I am a Cincinnati homegrown girl and I think it’s just amazing that people from out of town come to Cincinnati for the music festival, just to show how Cincinnati can be lit and can be comparable to other big cities,” says Morgan A. Owens, CEO of the MAO Brands. She’s not the only Cincy native proud of the city’s yearly time in the spotlight.

“It’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,” Tim’m West, recording artist and Cincy Black Pride organizer, says. “When I first moved here everyone was like, ‘why did you move back here?’ Now it’s starting to being like, ‘oh,’ that’s not the default. ‘Oh, it’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,’ is what people are saying.”

Bertie Ray III, owner of Switch Lighting & Design, the venue hosting the weekend’s Cincinnati Black Pride Day Party, agrees. “It’s overwhelming. You’re talking about 80,000 people from throughout the Midwest. From Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, it’s just folk from everywhere. So what’s wonderful to see with this many people in the city, is new fresh energy comes to the city,” the Washington, D.C. native says. “But also over the last three or four years, Cincinnati has hosted any number of conventions within the African-American community. The NAACP convention, the [Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity] Boule Convention, the Deltas were here, the Links were here, so it’s a destination for black America.”

And although the event’s website reads “Cincinnati Music Festival,” no one in town will call it that. To everyone on the ground, both rooted and visiting, it’s simply Jazz Fest. “That’s what it was originally branded as,” Will Jones, the Marketing and Communications Manager at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, says, referring to the event’s origins as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival. “It started in 1962 and it’s been here for years outside of, I believe, 2001 through 2004—those three years they had it in Detroit. But we just call it Jazz Fest because that’s what we know it as.”

After spending a weekend in Downtown Cincinnati sampling generous helpings of local eats, brushing up on black history at the Freedom Center, and swaying to the beat of deeply-rooted music each night, it’s clear that the weekend is about more than surface level entertainment like other music festivals. The magic of Jazz Fest is seeing how the different pockets of Cincinnati’s black population come together to build each other up, whether it’s in spirit, with financial support—“We bring in millions and millions of dollars, and it just goes to show the power of the black dollar. It’s a beautiful thing to see our community support black business owners,” Owens says—or in sheer fun.

“We do have a lot to offer, you just have to seek out the opportunity just like everywhere else," she continues. “It might not be as prominent as a New York or a Chicago or an L.A. or a Miami, but Cincinnati holds it down.”

Here, Jazz Festival frequenters share their favorite memories over the years and offer a glimpse of what makes the event, and their involvement in it, so special for Cincinnati.

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