Aldis Hodge in Brian Banks still image
Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

The Devastation Of Delayed Justice And The Necessary Timing Of 'Brian Banks'

According to 'Brian Banks' star Aldis Hodge, “anytime to address flaws when it comes to fighting for justice is the right time.”

Anger is nothing but clouded judgment, and Aldis Hodge wants me to be clear on that. It’s a pleasant June afternoon and before the actor departs from the East Coast for his next film project, we’re chatting over the phone about the particulars of the infamous Brock Turner case. In 2015, the former Stanford University student, then 19, was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old woman behind a campus dumpster after a frat party. At the time of sentencing for his deplorable crime, his father wrote a letter to the judge presiding over the case, begging for a more lenient sentence than the prosecutor’s requested six years because “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

To say Hodge felt certain things when the judge okayed a gentler sentencing—Turner was given six months in Santa Clara County Jail but was released after three—would be an understatement. Like many with sense and empathy considered it, the meager “consequence” for his actions was a spit in the face.

“The judicial system failed that woman,” Hodge says sternly. “When [Turner] gets let off with a slap on the wrist for three months, then I have to question how does the judicial system look at the value of women. They're saying, ‘his life will be severely impacted if he's in jail.’ I'm sorry, it's supposed to be. Why? Because this young woman's life is now severely impacted forever. She can't escape that. Where is the real justice?” The passion manifesting in the inflections of his voice, however, is steeped in disappointment, not quite anger. “I speak with full clarity and understanding of the subject matter but I'm still quite disappointed because we have been let down as a society.”

It wasn’t lost on Hodge how similar this judicial fumble was to the case of former Atlanta Falcons player Brian Banks, whose infuriating story is the basis of the Bleecker Street film bearing his name. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he auditioned for the lead role in the first place. Those familiar with Banks’ tale will know that in 2002, the then-17 high schooler and NFL prospect was wrongfully convicted of rape following a consensual sexual encounter on campus with classmate Wanetta Gibson. Although he maintained his innocence, she accused him of raping and kidnapping her, sued Long Beach Unified School District for lax security and an unsafe school environment, and eventually received a settlement of $15 million.

After being given 10 minutes to pick fighting the charges and risking 41 years-to-life in prison, or taking a plea deal and spending just over five years, he chose the latter with a no contest plea. Banks was sentenced to six years and a lifetime on the sex offender list, serving five and a year on probation (complete with an ankle monitor). With the eventual help of the California Innocence Project (who he had to convince to advocate on his behalf) he was exonerated a decade later on May 24, 2012 when Gibson recanted her story and admitted to fabricating the rape.

Brian Banks finds Hodge (Underground, City on a Hill, What Men Want) retracing the steps of the athlete’s redemption story from solitary confinement breakdowns to his rocky reentry to society on parole to the day his accuser, whose lie temporarily shattered his future, reached out to him on Facebook to “move past” that time.

Tucking away the pain of his ordeal took time, but in spending time with Banks, now 34, Aldis has developed a deep sense of awe and respect for Banks’ resilience and healing process. During the making of this film, in which Banks served as an executive producer, tough days were far from absent. Hodge can recall times when the flood of emotions were too strong to be kept behind stoic facades and focused eyes.

“There's a scene where I'm presenting my evidence to the C.I.P., showing them that this woman lied and they’re saying that I cannot present that in court. It's inadmissible,” he says, referencing Banks’ almost moment of freedom. After agreeing to talk to him in person about the incident, Banks and a neutral party secretly recorded her recantation. Unfortunately, because she did not agree up front to record the plain-as-day confession, her new words could not be used to free him. One could imagine the crushing feeling of defeat. “We talked about that before I shot the scene and were sitting there, two grown swole dudes in a hallway sitting on some stairs crying, going through the emotions.”

Here, Aldis Hodge talks about the feeling of retelling of such a heavy yet hopeful story, why it’s unfair to measure Brian Banks against the #MeToo movement, and why the time to take America’s flawed justice system to task—no matter the victim’s demographic—is right now.

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VIBE: How much did you know about Brian's story before this project and did you find this project on you own or did someone seek you out?
Aldis Hodge: I was familiar with it because of the juxtaposition of the case of Brock Turner and you see how it was handled versus how Brian's case was handled. I was quite frustrated with that, so when the story came up, I said, wow, this is really a grand opportunity to say something effective. Hopefully share a little light on the disparity when it comes to how we're treated in the judicial system versus how folk who don't look like us are treated.

What was that knee-jerk reaction when you heard the Brock Turner case?
My personal take on that, first of all I was, "Who's judging the judge?" The judge failed us as a society when it came to not necessarily making an example out of this young man, but just doing what was supposed to be done right. Justice wasn't served. I was pissed off. I'm not even going to lie, I was pissed off. In life there are so many grey areas, but when it comes to cases like this, there's black and white.

We can point back to Brian's case where they had a bunch of evidence pointing towards his innocence, where he should've gotten the benefit of the doubt. He should've gotten a second chance. The judicial system failed him and they didn't give him a chance at all because of who he was, what he looked like, where he came from. That's how we as black culture in this country are continually treated by the government, by the justice system. That needs to change, which is another part of why I did this film. I believe it has something more to say than just “it's a great story about hope.” It's really a wonderful, beautiful story that, to me, inspires faith and belief in oneself, because what Brian did for himself is insane. He went into prison, came out smarter and far more educated than when he went in. He manages to achieve exonerating and clearing his name, then goes on to achieve the ultimate dream—being in the NFL. That's insane to me, the fact that he held so much faith in who he was and his value that he just beat down wall after wall after wall of doubt. [He] pushed forward to create experiencing the impossible.

That was miraculous.
I mean, how many times do you actually hear stories like this? Especially the fact that he cleared his name just a month or two shy of his parole being up. If his parole had completed, doesn't matter what would've happened, he wouldn't have been able to clear his records. If he had stopped believing in himself a day or two, a week, a year, a month earlier, imagine what would not have ever happened for him.

I can feel the passion that you have, just as a person in the society towards it. Coming to the table with Brian to talk about how to embody this role going forward, was your passion matched in the same way? What did that look like for him? Is his stance more reflective, and has he moved past those raw emotions?
My passion is not anger, it's disappointment. I do have a bit of reverence to allow people to understand the degree of severity of when it comes to these situations. My passions are very real because the fact is that this could hit me, this could affect me at any moment. When it comes to Brian, he's been through the anger. The very first question I asked him when I talked to him the first time we met was, “Hey man, are you angry?” He said, “No, I'm not. I've been through the anger, I want to put that to bed. What I want to do now is just live my life. Live the happiest best life that I possibly can. I want to live freely.” I think we both share the same passion, where we understand that people in positions are not doing the jobs that they are challenged to do, and that’s why we do the work that we do in ways that we hopefully can be most effective.

How did you prepare for the role emotionally?
Initially I was trying to get my weight up [for the role]. I was thinking about trying to get a trainer and then after a while, I was like, nah, let me just Brian train me. Brian and I spent our time in the gym and that's where we started learning more about each others’ mentality, our work ethic, how serious we are about this. From there, when it came to being on set Brian was on set most days and the days he wasn't there was a conscience choice because he had a hard time dealing with certain situations. When we did the solitary confinement scene, he had to step away but we would talk and before every scene I would hit him up and be like "Look man, what were you going though in this time frame and where was your mentality on it."

Before watching the film, some of the critiques I saw when it first premiered at the L.A. film festival were, "It's a great film that came out at the wrong time.” They felt it was “bad timing" given the height of the #MeToo movement. Did you have any of those reservations?
I can't compare my pain to yours, yours is equally as valid as mine is. I know that from a very basic and narrow and, to a degree, I would say emotionally immature perspective, people like to compare what this is and could be to the #MeToo movement. What they have to realize is as far as the victims for the #MeToo movement, they deserve their voice. They deserve to be represented, they deserve to seek justice. On the flip side of that, there are also victims who are in prison for crimes that they did not commit. I'm talking robbery, I'm talking rape, I'm talking drug charges.

With Brian's story, a judicial system has failed because they did not do their jobs. Brian had evidence. Basically, we have the scientific lab report that's saying it was literally no sex. [Brian’s] lawyer has this in her hand and she tries not to use this evidence right. She chose to say, I'm going to figure out how to win this case and not lose, so I'm going to go in there and tell you take a plea deal, not fully explaining the consequences of what pleading out means, because 97 percent of cases plea out as opposed to fighting for their innocence and their justice. We’re talking about a judicial system that has failed people on all sides, so there's no comparison or really parallel when it comes to the #MeToo movement. They deserve their respect and they deserve their placement. Out of respect for victims of the #MeToo movement, we don't ever bring that up because we feel like, who are we to ever in any capacity compare? That's not who we are, that's not what we do, and that's definitely not who or what Brian is. They deserve their justice. Brian, being in his position, also deserves his justice and what the audience has to acclimate to doing is seeing the full scope of the flaws within these situations.

Are you familiar with the Albert Wilson case?
No. Please educate me.

A former University of Kansas student was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for an alleged rape, where there was no DNA evidence that they had sex. He and the young woman went to a club underage at the time, none of them were carded, and afterwards, “fooling around” happened that she alleges was rape but he says was not. The minimum for rape convictions in Kansas is 12 years, and he was recently sent to prison to serve out the sentence even though he maintains his innocence. The timing of Brian Banks coming out and sharing this message is interesting because of how similar the DNA situation is, provided his actual innocence. It makes you think about how hard it is to experience a redemption moment like Brian did.
I think that anytime to address flaws when it comes to fighting for justice, is the right time. For people who think, oh is this the wrong time, no we are talking about a real issue that happens on a daily basis and the fact that we're bringing it to light... The right time is today, now, yesterday. It's always the right time to talk about anything that's going to fight for true justice.

When it comes to Brian's case he did all of his time. He was a couple months shy of parole being up when he exonerated himself. So he did a year in jail, he did five years in prison and then he did five years on parole, living that caged hell on the outside of prison. Brian didn't get any kind of break when it came to his sentence. He wasn't let off early, he wasn't handed a break really even with the C.I.P. If it wasn't for him really fighting for himself he would've been lost, lost to the system. I do hope for this young man’s sake, presuming his innocence, that he gets the help that he needs because it's out there. Hopefully this film sheds a little light on more people that need that help.

A frustrating thing is not knowing when, if or how an entity will advocate on your behalf and fight for you the way you want to fight for yourself. Like you said, Brian had to find a way to prove, "Hey, I'm worthy of being helped. What do you think should be the takeaways as far as advocacy, especially in fine line situations? The whole idea that you may likely be innocent but there could be a doubt that you're not and how that shapes the way people approach your situation.
I remember when I first met Brian, in order to really take on this role, I had to believe him. If I was going to represent this man, for me this is not about a job opportunity or check. This is about what I’m personally putting my name behind and what I believe in. I had to believe him and I did. If you put yourself in a position professionally or charitably where you are able to and you’re supposed to help build the need, do the due diligence and do the work. Go out there and make yourself a bit more accessible. Granted, I understand there's a lot of people who might say "I'm innocent" when they're not and, again, if you do the work, you get as much info as you can. As much evidence as you can and just make yourself available for these people to find you so they can access you. There's a lot of people in prison who don't realize that they have access to more help on the outside. If they know they have more access, they might be able to actually help represent themselves in a position where they can clear their names.

I say if it's family and friends, do as much research as you can. We have access to more resources than ever in this particular age in time and reach out and find out these organizations like the C.I.P, the California Innocence Project. If not that, you might have to go do the work yourself, get a private investigator to go look at the location, the scene of the crime. Just like with Brian's case the DA, no one went down to investigate where the girls said that she was kidnapped. If they had, they would've known that everything that she said was a lie. Given the time of day, given the access, given the people that would've been around, there is no possible way that she could've been dragged, kicking and screaming down an open hallway with all these doors open and students in class. Regardless of what they would've found, the fact is again they didn't do their jobs because no one went down there to investigate the scene of the crime. The scene of the supposed crime, that is the biggest issue there.

Also, if you're put in a position to do a specific job you have to do, step up to the plate. Don't be lazy and don't play the agenda bias of I'm just trying to get from point A to point Z. No, you have people’s lives in you hands and you are committed to that.That is what you're doing is to help actually save some lives, so do that.

One of the interesting nuances of the film is the presentation of “Kennisha Rice” and the part she plays in setting Brian's life back. It’s very interesting that she was not presented as malicious, sneaky or intentional; her inconsistencies were driven out of fear from her mother’s point of view. Do you think it's something to take into account when looking at some of the people who make these accusations and wind up ruining people’s lives, And the way they're seen after that?
With this film, our priority was not to demonize her. If we were going to show her, we were going to show her as a human being, given Brian's current perspective of not being angry and not wanting to demonize her, not get revenge on this woman, anything like that. He's free of that. We want you to come up with your own idea, if you happen to understand her and sympathize with the fear and maybe you've made the same terrible choice in the situation. That's on you. We don't want to direct how you see this person.

As far as what may come of this, if it's karma coming back at her, it's not karma that Brian threw out her. Brian is telling his story and he has to be honest of that. However, we have to accentuate the fact that they are flawed human beings and this is what can happen when you don't take responsibility for your own flaws. When you don't look at it yourself and understand the power you made holds in the situation, these are the mistakes that can happen. We are not trying to get people to hate this character because that would contradict the entire journey that Brian as been on. We don't want you to hate anybody. We’re over that. Focus on the faith. Focus on the happiness. Focus on the belief and the fight that Brian had to fight for who he was in his value and maintaining his innocence knowing that he was still worth something.

What do you hope unsure audiences take away from this film and this very real story?
I caution against my selfish ambitions when it comes to that question. I just hope people take away hope and belief in themselves and the power that they will, when it comes to actually helping someone else who maybe in need, I hope people answer the call if every they are or feel called to do so.

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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 Vibe Cincinnati, the organization showcasing the region’s multicultural delights. 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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Kadeen Johnson for Everyday Afrique

With African Music On The Rise, Afro-Themed Dance Parties Get To Win, Too

When walking up to the venue for New York City day party Everyday Afrique, the music greets you before you can even reach the door. Depending on the day or the DJ, you might be welcomed with a remix of Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi’s 2013 hit song “Bankulize” or embraced by Niniola’s 2017 Afrohouse single “Maradona.” The dozens of people waiting outside of the venue, the majority of which are black professionals and creatives, are dancing along to the music, seemingly unbothered by the line that stretches down the block. The lively scene outside of the venue looks considerably different than it did in 2016, when media company OkayAfrica teamed up with two popular party series, Everyday People and ElectrAfrique, to throw its inaugural Everyday Afrique event. In the three years since Everyday Afrique began, the crowd has increased from 250 people to more than 1,800 people per event, tickets are selling out faster than ever, and the African music that anchors the event has transcended the borders of Africa and is now being played on radio stations and in clubs around the world.

African music, particularly Afrobeats, has shared a prosperous give-and-take relationship with Afro-themed party series like Everyday Afrique. In the past, Afrobeats, Afrohouse, and Caribbean soca music were once exclusively celebrated by local communities living in major cities on the African continent—Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi—and diasporic transplants that returned home to these cities for the holidays. Over the last two to three years, there has been an extreme increase in demand for various genres of African music in places like Washington, D.C., New York, London, and Paris, cities that for years already maintained a high concentration of Afro-themed functions to serve their diverse populations. In these cities, Afro-themed parties like London’s Afrobeats in the Garden and New York’s Afro Night Live have done their part to curate experiences around a growing art form that had little support but that they appreciated and believed in. Now, these same parties are benefiting from the music’s newfound success and expanding just as quickly as the sounds.

Everyday Afrique has been one of the major benefactors and beneficiaries of African music’s success in NYC. Three times a year during the summer’s three major holidays—Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day—Everyday Afrique hosts an all-out sweat dripping, rump-shaking, gwara gwara-hitting dance party in rotating venues around Brooklyn. The party’s soundtrack is a collection of popular and underground Afrobeats, Afrohouse, reggae, soca, and hip-hop music provided by half a dozen DJs including Everyday People co-founder DJ Moma and ElectrAfrique founder, DJ Cortega. “Our approach for Everyday Afrique has always been one of community-building,” DJ Cortega says over the phone from his home in Dakar, Senegal. “We do this through connecting people who are like-minded, that have common objectives, that are inclusive, and using music as a platform to bring people together.”

The bulk of people who make up Everyday Afrique’s community are African born and diasporic born people who dwell in neighborhoods in Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn. Although the ages of the attendees vary, the 21+ crowd is largely dominated by millennial age professionals and creatives who likely share five or more mutual Instagram friends with any given person in the venue. There is a sense of Pan-African pride amongst the group, highlighted by “Very Black” graphic tees floating around the party and gold pendants carved in the shape of the continent dangling from attendees’ necks. Not only are the people at Everyday Afrique connected by their love for African music, but what the music represents and tells them about their culture.

A number of other Afro-themed party series that aim to conjure a similar feeling of cultural pride and community fostering have popped up in various cities around the world. Afrocode is a similar dance-heavy event that hosts weekly parties in Atlanta, New York City, and D.C. The inaugural Afrocode was organized by Ghanian entrepreneur "FredEvents" in 2013. He had the primary desire to connect the often fragmented black American, black Caribbean, and black African communities and provide a celebratory environment where they could listen to and appreciate one another’s music and cultures. "We picked a theme that wasn't solely African, but that can also bring the three cultures together to appreciate each others’ genre,” Fred explains via phone. “We knew the energy would be completely different because you are giving the best of all the three categories in one space."

 

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The energy fostered in these environments has been both a cause and effect of the diaspora’s growing desire to reconnect and learn more about their African ancestry through various cultural channels. The growing popularity of parties like these corresponds with the success of travel companies like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa, both of which create and share opportunities for black people from the diaspora to visit the continent and engage in historical and cultural experiences during their visits. “I think people are now paying attention to what it means to be African,” Fred says. “For the longest, a lot of African Americans, black people in general, have tried to seek that connection.” Although these connections are also being formed through fashion, art, and other creative mediums, nothing has seemed to connect Africa and the diaspora more than music and the spaces that are curating a vibe around it.

Afrobeats, in particular, has emerged as the leading genre during this most recent global African music takeover. The genre, which over the years has been used to define a broad collection of popular sounds coming out of West Africa, has catapulted a number of its stars into the international spotlight. Earlier this year, Afrobeats stars Burna Boy and Mr Eazi performed sets at Coachella and the summer before Afrobeats hitmaker Davido shut down London’s Wireless Festival with a highly talked about set. The former two artists were also featured on Beyonce’s latest surprise album The Lion King: The Gift, along with West African hitmakers WizKid and Tekno. The album itself appears to be an ode to the genre and its African roots and includes many of the same percussion elements as Afrobeats.

Much of the music's global appeal can be credited to its upbeat and lively instrumentation and feel-good lyrics, which tend to celebrate life, love, and positive experiences. “Afrobeats is engraved in people's culture, it's not just a cool thing,” Fred says. “People live, breathe it. It's a true culture, it's not just a music category. It feels like when hip-hop was starting out back in the day. They were telling their stories through the music. With the music comes a lot of different ways that we can showcase Africans in a different light.”

For Fred, Afrobeats seemed like the most logical breakthrough genre in the U.S. because of the hefty West African presence in cities like D.C. and New York, where both he and DJ Cortega first tried their hands at hosting Afro-themed parties. Europe has also been up on the Afrobeats wave. ElectrAfrique has touched down in Berlin and Paris, and London-based event company Sounds D’Afrique has brought the flavor of Afrobeats to London’s club scene. In each city, these gatherings are centering Afrobeats music, while simultaneously introducing locals to new artists and the sounds that energize crowds in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Jamaica, and other countries around the world.

Their success is a prime example of the adage “when opportunity meets preparation.” When Swedish born DJ Cortega first launched ElectrAfrique, he did so with a small team in Nairobi, Kenya. ElectricAfrique held its first party in 2011, the same year WizKid released his debut album Superstar and Davido dropped "Back When," the first single off Omo Baba Olowo. DJ Cortega, FredEvents, and other early Afro-themed party founders had the foresight to curate parties around a sound that had yet to find a global audience or show potential to do so. Now, the rise in attendance at these events can be directly attributed to the growth of African music.

Parties like ElectricAfrique are continuing to introduce other African people to the new popular songs produced by their neighboring countries. “Even though we're growing, it’s still relatively organic and community-based,” Cortega says. “We have never really tried to push super hard to grow. We want the event to grow naturally. We want people to enjoy being there and feel like this is a space where they are comfortable and where they identify and so they want to bring their friends and like-minded people to it. In terms of the vibe that's one of the very important elements.”

So what’s next for the growth of African music and the party series that provides the music with the grassroots marketing it needs to succeed? Neither DJ Cortega nor Fred see it slowing down anytime soon. “Africa is almost 1.2 billion people,” Fred says. “There's not a question about it being sustainable. The culture will always be there. People are always going to create. I think the part where the music is so much more important now is because people are starting to respect what being African is because they have a marketable product that they can attach a dollar value to.” Regardless of the changing landscape of the music industry, parties like Everyday Afrique, Afrocode and the like are primed to continue thriving as a result of the communities they built that may have been brought together by the music but stayed for the experience.

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Phil Emerson

E-40 The Ageless: Forty Water Memories of a Bay Area Rap Giant

In 1995 he was rhyming “Floyd Terrace” with “esopha-garus,” rapidly scrunching and expanding rhymes with torrents of slang, often hilarious and strikingly original. The audacity of E-40 has been his ability to be himself, a one-of-a-kind whose business savvy moved him far beyond rap, famously sitting courtside at huge events, funding films, owning restaurants and real estate, condos and cars, even dabbling in the tequila (naturally called, E Cuarenta). At over thirty releases, let us also not forget he’s one of the most prolific artists— in any genre— of the last three decades.

These days he’s community minded, glowingly giving back and accepting his role as local neighborhood champ. “You don’t always have to broadcast what you do on the internet or push it in the limelight or put it on the news. But I definitely do that sometimes because I want to influence other people in my position to do the same thing.”

All of this doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s never slowed musically, releasing double albums, side projects, and even trilogies in staggering artistic spurts. 2012 saw five total projects – three solo albums and two collabs with another enormous figure, Oakland’s own Too Short. His response as to how he’s able to remain in creative overdrive after all these years: “It’s all gravity.”

Practice Makes Paper, his latest release, is brimming with guests who not only add to the album’s interest factor, but also reflect E-40’s continual and far-reaching relevance. Swaths of guests include Method Man and Scarface, but also Chris Brown and G-Eazy, Schoolboy Q, Rick Ross, and others. Whether as E-Pheezy, Charlie Hustle, or 40 Belafonte, he’s one of the most uniquely consistent personalities in music, finding his style early on and never deviating. Musical landscapes change, and we grow older, but E-40 stays the same— there’s a comfort in that.

Here we talk about the early schemes of a young Earl Stevens, his relationships with other Bay giants, his time with Tupac, and other seminal, and at times peerless, moments in the career of the great Earl Stevens.

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VIBE: You started Sick Wid It Records in 1986. Tell us about the beginning. E-40: My brother, D-Shot, and I had a clothing store around the time we had just finished college. D-Shot did 22 months in Preston CYA, a California Youth Authority and after he was released, we decided we needed to slow down and stay out of trouble. So we bought a clothing store in the late 1980s and called it New Fat Clothing. We would just buy our stuff from New York or LA’s garment district and distribute them here in the Bay. At the time it was like a dice roll.

Tell us what you remember about the making of your first solo album, Federal. I was cold turkey out of the soil, you feel me? I was new and was leaving my old life behind to work on this life and use the money we’d to put into studio time. Whether it was $40 or $400, I used that money to invest back into myself. I’d walk down to Vallejo Check Cashing then walk straight to the studio and be like, “I need four hours for next Tuesday, here’s my deposit.” So while I’m at the store cashiering or stocking or whatever, I’d write lyrics and jot everything all down while listening to beats. Once I got to the studio, I’d finish like four or five songs easily and all of those those tracks over time became Federal.

What do you remember about the actual studio process and technology of the time? I remember doing it all on half-inch reels. Then a couple years later, we would mix everything onto two-inch reels. But those fucking two-inch reels held at most three songs! And each reel was something ridiculous like $350 each. It’s trippy because these days you can pay like a couple hundred bucks and have thousands of your songs stored somewhere. That’s how it was, at least where we were at in the Bay.

On the topic of the Bay, talk about your friendship with another local legend, Too Short. How did you two meet? It came about naturally. We had mutual friends and I knew him and his folks B.R. You know what that means?

B.R.? It means ‘Before Rap’ [laughs]. We had mutual friends but we never kicked it. I used to go to every Too Short show I could too. I don’t look up to too many, but I looked up to him. I grew up on all his stuff and was a real fan. We were on the same label for many years, he signed with Jive Records in ‘88 and I signed a distribution deal with them around ’94. We eventually did a record in 1996 called “Rappers Ball” and shot a legendary video with tycoons like Ice-T, Mack 10, Tupac and hella others. The grind didn’t stop from there though, we went on to do hella songs.

Another Bay standout is Boots Riley (from the Coup) who is now an acclaimed film director. There’s that famous picture of you, Boots, and Tupac together. Talk about Boots. Boots to me has always been one of those dudes that stood for what’s right. I would literally see Boots at every show that was going on in Cali. We did a song called “Santa Rita Weekends” and I felt it was legendary and we just stayed in contact ever since. He had a song where he said, ‘I got a mirror in my pocket to practice lookin’ hard,’ which I always loved. That picture you mentioned was when we were doing a video and Pac just popped in. We weren’t even expecting him but he was in the Bay for a court date.

How was Tupac that day? He hung out all day. He was in the soil. All my in-laws, all my cousins, everyone, he showed genuine love to. We was deep in apartment complexes, Lucky Supermarket, and the local check-cashing place, and everyone was just taking pictures with him. I remember everyone becoming Pac’s security that day [laughs], nobody even think about popping a balloon, you feel me? People was trippin’ because Pac was in V-Town!

Talk about your relationship with him. How did you two meet? He shouted me and the Click out on the track “Representin’ 93” from his album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and I heard it. It was at a Juneteenth event in Davis and I saw Richie Rich, this rapper from Oakland. Rich was like, ‘Yo Pac wanted me to give you his number, he wants to holler at you.’ I said, ‘For real? He wants to fuck with us?’ Rich had already known Pac for years. So I hit him up and from there, there was no turning back.

What was the studio environment like when you two met up? Every time in the studio we had a pervin’ session, you know, getting warped, smoking big turtle, smoking that big broccoli. Every time there was a new deal, we’d be in the studio celebrating, getting twisted, making songs. It was like a family reunion.

On topic of songs, I’d like to talk about a couple classics of yours. “Captain Save A Hoe,” for instance was a hit with a very memorable music video. It was just comedy. Making the music video was tons of fun too. First of all, there’s a difference in having a female that you’re locked in with and she’s faithful, that’s beautiful. But sometimes dudes have females with more miles on her than Jet Blue [laughs] Every Tom, Dick, or Harry has had relations with your girl and you’re trying to make her a housewife? That’s “Captain Save A Ho.”

Another recent song of yours, “Choices,” became a huge anthem. How’d that come about? I don’t always talk in third person but I sometimes rap in third person and I was just talking to myself when I made that song. That’s like my inner dialogue, you know? I’m just talking to myself about making choices and I caught a flow that opened up the direction of the track. Asking myself a question, then answering it. Yup!

You ended up altering the lyrics for the Golden State Warriors’ run a couple years back. Sports fans, especially here in the Bay, see you at games all the time. How do you see the Dubs doing next season? I think they’ll be right back on top of the league. Of course the league has tightened up with good players but Dubs have a lot of experience and know-how from winning so much during these five or six years. I really hated to see KD [Kevin Durant] go but it was the right move. I think the legacy will continue.

We touched on your history but I’d like to highlight your community efforts. What’s your message when it comes to giving back? The thing is, you have to give back from the heart. You have to do it right and not just for show. For instance, when I gave out backpacks to some school kids, it was on the news and all that, which is fine, it’s all gravity. But I wasn’t just handing out backpacks, I purposely chose Jansport because they have lifetime guarantees, you feel me? So that if something happens, these kids can still help themselves and get another backpack.

Speaking of kids, what’s your take on current rap you hear? Do younger artists hit you up for advice? A lot of the music is out of hand and probably wouldn’t have lasted in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s all gravity because I do like a lot of the newer stuff too. Some stuff people might not even think I’m into it. But for all you young artists: anytime anyone needs anything, needs any advice, I’m here for y’all.

Let’s end this at the beginning; full circle. What music were you into when you were younger? Do you remember when hip-hop entered the picture? I was into soul music and R&B. The Bar-Kays, Cameo, Earth Wind & Fire. For all the young bloods out there, that’s where hip-hop started! And the first time I heard rap? It was 1979 at Franklin Junior High and I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” And that was it for me. Damn brother, that was forty years ago!

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