Toni Morrison Portrait
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The VIBE Q: Toni Morrison

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist talks Oprah, Tawana, rage, rap, rebuilding, and how to live in the world.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of Vibe Magazine.

You know her books. So imagine going to her luxuriously spartan Manhattan crash pad, where Toni Morrison sits you down at her kitchen table, makes you a cup of imported herbal tea, and chain-smokes fiendishly while she tells you stories: A black seminarian she knew had been tutoring some urban New Jersey black kids. As he was telling them some basic facts about slavery, he noticed that they kept giving him a strange look. Finally, one of them said, “Man, are you kidding? You mean black people were brought here as slaves?” And they laughed.

“These kids were twelve and fourteen,” Morrison points out. “They knew about racism and being black, but they did not know...” She cocks her head from across the table and gives you a look: “I want to know who skipped that part.”

Then she’s switched gears, and you’re both laughing at the general outcry over O.J. Simpson’s recent interview appearances. “I think Geraldo ought to give O.J. ten percent of his salary,” she cracks. Then she’ll swear you to secrecy and share some truly hilarious (non-O.J.–related) insight, and while you’re laughing at that, Morrison warns: “If you print that, I will sue you and I will kill you.” And she laughs. [Some time after this interview appeared, she published her assertion that Bill Clinton was the first black president in The New Yorker—but it wasn’t as funny.]

“No person is only blank,” Morrison explains later, when answering if she feels pigeonholed by the definitions (first Nobel Prize-winning black feminist author) of literary critics. “When I was a little girl, I was walking down the street in Ohio. A man came up to me and said, ‘Are you a Willis?’—referring to my mother's maiden name—‘I thought so, by the way you walk.’ And I knew he knew my family. It was a comfort to be identified as a Willis. I moved to New York and people said, ‘What do you do?’ So you say ‘I’m a writer, teacher, editor, whatever’—but you know that’s only a part of who you are.”

Perhaps it’s the way she so keenly divines “who you are” that makes Toni Morrison such a force with which to reckon. From her first novel, 1970’s heartbreaking, pigment-envy classic, The Bluest Eye, to her most recent, the gender tragedy Paradise, the 67-year-old writer has fearlessly explored the pitfalls of self-limitation, as well as the horror that is not being seen for who you are. Morrison isn’t an easy writer, and she is often the bearer of unwelcome truths. It’s the weight of her talent that makes Oprah Winfrey curl up with these obsessive, violent parables—then gets the TV personality to recommend them to middle-American homemakers. (Winfrey has produced and stars in Jonathan Demme’s feature film version of Morrison’s 1987 post–slave era ghost story Beloved, due out this fall). And her genius is surely what makes it such a trippy privilege to sit with her for hours and shoot the sh*t.


VIBE: So. Paradise is the story about this women’s commune in the ’70s, and all these completely screwed-up guys who—

Toni Morrison: Got it wrong.

—who got it wrong and feel they have to butcher these women. The thing that struck me was, What if this book had been written by a man?

That’s interesting because I think some people have noted a strong feminist theme in it.

What if it was the same text, and if Toni Morrison was a guy? Would it be attacked by NOW?

But I think that I do write with a very good male sensitivity, because I don’t have axes to grind. I’m not that judgmental.

Those men who mounted that assault were in error, and they came from a whole history of black men and women who were better than that. Much better than that! It’s a parable of the so-called ’60s, really, when the threat of women—free with certain kind of license —was real. And, in a closed, protected, religious society of any kind, that was a major threat. So that patriarchal values, whether they’re white or black, would have been hostile to any collection of women who seemed not to need male control.

But there are all sorts of dialogues that have not yet taken place within the group. There’re generation conflicts; there are class conflicts.

There’s a budding conversation about young black girls in the entertainment world, the rap singers, the dancers, and their contribution to the culture versus their not-contribution, you know, counter-contribution, and another group of women, who consider themselves quite liberation. That discussion hasn’t taken place yet. Those differences.

I wanted to ask you about the violence that women seem to vent today. You know, I just heard that my cousin’s 15-year-old daughter got arrested for killing a cabbie in Florida.

Oh, my!

You know? And this is right after these other teen girls up in the Bronx killed a cabbie and then were caught bragging about it.

I think women have been in a rage for a long time. And they just didn’t have any guns. But now we have the guns! [Laughs.] The rage of women is still staggering to me. It’s different from I guess earlier days. But, you know, in the African-American culture, women were much more walk-on-water aggressive types than white women ever were, anyway. They really took things into their hands, and they were not about to go slowly into that abused life. You know, if you listen to [blues] lyrics, it’s always, “If you start it, you have to finish it, because I’m not going to take it lying down.” So that feeling of confrontation with whatever was out there, or whatever men or it proposed, has been a very strong survivalist strategy among us.

However, some of it’s a little wanton now, it’s a little narcissistic, a little prideful—there’s the “He Done Me Wrong” or “She Done Me Wrong, Therefore Kill.” Or, there is the “He Done Me Wrong, Let Me Get Out of Here and Make My Life Over.” The latter is the one that I grew up with. The other one seems sort of narrow, and self-absorbed. The slaughter of somebody who was mean to you, or didn’t like you, or hurt you in some way. The slaughter. I mean, it’s the uselessness of another person’s life. That to me seems very recent. The rage has always been there, but the management of it is different. Now, you know, it’s quite easy to not manage it, to terminate the argument.

Somebody has to talk to those girls...You know what they need? They need to go out to Bedford Hills [Correctional Facility] and have some conversations with some of the women, young women who are there. That is the most helpful conversation they could possibly have. They don’t need me or some authority saying, “Don’t do bad things.” What they need are some of the people who have done the bad things.

I have been to Bedford. What struck me was, when you see women in prison, whatever their dealings are among themselves—just the notion that men in prison have on their walls pictures of women. Women in prison have on their walls pictures of children. Anybody’s child. All kinds of children. And they adopt one another. It would be interesting to see some dialogues between the young gang members, women, girls, and some older black women who have been there.

What about the huge rise in what they call neo-natocide?

Is that babies or fetuses?


Babies. Well, you know, we have told those young girls in very clear terms that what you are doing is immoral and expensive and a burden to society and a blight. We have told them that there are ways in which you can avoid doing this. So what these girls are producing, in their minds’ eye—they thought it was a baby. But in fact, it turns out to be a disease. A horror. An embarrassment. Something that no one wants.

When I was a young girl, black girls had children—it was a scandal, but they took care of the children. Somebody took care of those children. They didn’t put them in the orphanage. Somebody took those children and raised them. And people could appear, even in my own family, ten and twelve years later, claiming to be the daughters of various people, and my mother said, “Come on in.” Now that’s not true. So that they’re bearing something that, when they deliver, is already something that society has contempt for, because no one wants to pay for it. So their connection to that child is sometimes immediately distorted because it’s not a person, it’s not a human being—it’s a terrible, terrible illness. And you have this violent reaction; the body even sometimes has a violent reaction to the carrying of it. And we are not putting our arms around those girls.

Listen: I heard, and have heard for years, that a female who is pregnant by the time she is sixteen has no chance of getting any cancer of any of her reproductive organs. Now, I asked an oncologist about this, and he said it seems to be so. Now, I thought now suppose it is so. I don’t know if the baby has to come to term, but any female who is pregnant by the time she’s sixteen, has no chance of her getting these major cancers. Now that’s interesting information, isn’t it?

That’s amazing.

What would happen to social policy? What would you do with your daughter? All I’m saying is that we’re not looking at this right. We’re looking at it from a Republican-who- doesn’t-want-to-pay-taxes point of view. They don’t care about those girls, they care whether they pay for them. That’s all.

We fought a long time to have “women taking care of children” understood to be work. Now it’s understood to be something else. Do you remember this British nanny case, and there was a lot of complaint about the mother not being home with the child, and she should have, this professional woman. She should have been home with her children, said some people.

On the other hand, if she was a poor black woman, she should not be home with her children. She should work. Even if that work is taking care of somebody else’s children. So that the contradictions and the deceit in that discourse, you know, boggled the mind. No wonder nobody can say anything, because the signals that one is getting from public discourse, government discourse, cultural discourse is meaningless because each sentence contradicts the other one.!4

Now, Breast Cancer Month just passed, you know, all sorts of shows about who has it, and what to do about it. That what I said was never brought up. I’s very interesting. I haven’t found physicians yet who said, “Oh, no, no, no.” [She pauses for a moment then laughs at herself.] “Toni Morrison is a kook who sits around...”

No, we haven’t got to the “Toni Morrison is a kook” phase yet. You still have a ways to go. But, you know, it’s one of those things where if a white man were saying that, he’d be stoned.

I can get away with it.

Tawana Brawley made an appearance recently and New York newspapers seemed aghast that so many black people believe her story.

Something happened to Tawana Brawley. And she was fifteen. I have never forgiven the people who betrayed her.

Well, who do you feel betrayed her?

When have you ever seen a alleged rape victim’s picture in the paper? Never. That child was fifteen. I don’t care what she was doing...something terrible happened to her. And everybody is busy saying something didn’t happen—she invented it. I mean, it’s just unbelievable! At the time that happened to her, I had a lot of white women friends call me up to get me to sign on to Hedda Nussbaum as a victim of her abusive, manipulative husband. And I would ask them, “What are you doing about Tawana Brawley?” And there was always this incredible silence. No one even...this is a little girl.

But what is interesting to me, at the moment—and has always been—is this overwhelming urgency to sweep that under the rug. I mean, just urgency to make sure it never happened. That’s very alarming to me. Why is the media all in it? Why is everybody in there determined that it was a hoax? From the beginning, you know?

Well, why is it acceptable to believe Oliver North if you’re white, but not to believe Tawana Brawley if you’re black?

Exactly. [Laughter.]

The media freaks out because so many black people believe that there’re all these conspiracies against them.

I wonder why? [Laughs.] Oh, no kidding. No, something terrible happened to her, and I’ve always wanted to tell her that it hurts me to think that there was no respite for her. No haven. Nobody she could talk to. Her going to join the Muslims was inevitable, it seems to me, under those circumstances. The truth was co-opted by several diverse groups. A truth—that suited their agenda. And Tawana got so lost in it.

What was your reaction when Oprah’s Book Club picked your 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, and it sold zillions of copies?

I was astonished by that choice. But somebody last year asked me, didn’t I feel awkward being in the company of some of the titles that she had chosen. I said, “Hey, listen, the remarkable thing about Oprah’s Book Club is not just what you think. But it returns the novel to what it was.” Remember when they told women “don’t read it, it might give you ideas”? It was a thing that men said was dangerous for women. Also, novels are always associated with sleep and death. You know, people say I dipped into it before I went to sleep, or it’s on my bedside table.

But listen—Oprah Winfrey said to her 20 million audience, “Turn off the television, it’s okay to do this in the central part of your day.” No more, “Oh, you know, I used to read, but now I don’t have time.” And it means they can talk about it, and they can be confused about it, or they don’t have to understand it, they can fuss about it. Now that’s returning novels to narrative, or public discourse.

But the consequences of it are twofold. One, it makes the active reading for all those people that we think we have disdain for—the publishers certainly do, they never talk to them. The publishers talk to the man who runs Barnes & Noble, they don’t talk to those people out there, that she talks to. Those people, many of them, have never been in a bookstore, and are intimidated by going in a bookstore. And book shops all over the country are saying, “You know, we’re getting people that we have never seen come in bookstores before.”

This is something coming from someplace else, saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing if you can’t sell to these people.” That’s the implication: You publishers do not know what you’re doing if you can’t sell 800,000 copies of a book to these people.

Oh, all right, she’s done it for twelve months or whatever. But there is no book that she has mentioned that hasn’t been purchased at that level.

Now, I have thought about this a lot because I wondered who is going to buy my book because Oprah says so. Then I realized that most book shows on television miss the point because they’re teacherly, I-know-it-you-don’t, elitist. It’s not open, friendly, we’re both in this together. And it’s off-putting for the non-reader, non-browser, non-academic person.

The bestseller sells to people who don’t buy books. That’s why it’s called “best.” You know it’s out there when people who buy two books a year, buy it. Not just buy it, but actually read it and talk about it. I was in a chat room—it’s amazing what’s going on out there: quarrels and interrogations, a marvelous series of conversations from hundreds of people about my book. It’s a dream.

It’s sort of like when I was an undergraduate, when you used to fight about books—that kind of fervor, that kind of passion is out there. I don’t need this sort of cool New York critical eye. It’s something else.

Now whatever that is she’s tapped into, has always been there, and nobody knew how to get to it, or work it. But Oprah just reads books, and she reads them all the time. And, she just likes them, for all sorts of reasons, some good, some perhaps not. But it almost doesn’t matter, because the phenomenon is the thing and I am not going to do what authors triply do to themselves, which is to identify so quickly with an elite, so that they’re pleased because only ten people read them.

I was wondering if there’s another talk show host who could establish a book club?

Jerry Springer.

[She feigns innocence.] You think?

Has her purchase of the movie rights to Beloved and Paradise changed you in any way?

Not really. I had reservations about selling Beloved, because it wasn’t an option, it was an outright sale. But I thought it was interesting that there was a black woman in the world who could buy the property and just write the check. Every other option was sort of “Can we go beg a white guy?” and this was something so different that it was just seductive. She wanted Beloved, and she got it. She went in her pocketbook... [Laughs.] I am very wary—not just of people, but of people in media. And she is forthright. It’s like being in the company of the genuine article, as opposed to the developed one. Oprah is evolved.

What are the reasonable expectations that minority readers should have toward minority writers?

They should not be easily seduced by calls to simplistic arguments, and, you know, I guess you call it black exploitation—where you sort of use your essentialism in order to get attention that way. They should pattern it after the demands of the music, complicated, simple, but easily demanding. Early black music was not tampered with by other forces. The best floated to the top. And the critical audiences, the demanding audiences, were black. You couldn’t get away with junk when you were delivering to a black audience. That’s the way I feel when I write. I can’t get away with silly stuff, patronizing stuff, misleading stuff.

As a writer, I don’t play that game. Of course, a lot of people don’t read me because I don’t play the game, but it has to be the highest possible standards, like the precedent that we have, which is obviously in music. My feeling is that wherever minorities enter into a previously all non-minority field, they always raise the standards. You can never play basketball like that again, ever. You can never play this after Coltrane. We always make it harder and better. And I think that’s true—if we let it be—in literature. The promise has been filtered through other gazes and other eyes, but once it gets unpoliced and not so much about celebrity, when the work itself is unpoliced—and it has to be in your feedback, the tough black readers; even if there are only four, that’s what you go for.

I know how to write difficult esoteric books, and I probably do write them. But I’m always, always focused on the story, the plot, and I think those books that are well done can be enjoyed by non-discriminating readers. And there also is a lot in there for very fastidious readers.

As a writer, who do you think of as your peers?

Oh, there’s a woman I used to edit that I always thought of as my peer, she died recently —Toni Cade Bambara. I just miss her in every single way. She was for me, artistically, the closest. And I still sort of identify myself with that whole generation of emerging black women writers. Whether Book A or Book B I liked, it was that whole movement. I was not early. I mean, Alice Walker published before I did. Maya Angelou published before I did. June Jordan had published. Lucille Clifton was publishing. But I feel a part of that community. Sonia Sanchez.

And I’m just delighted because there’s so many other women who are a third of my age who are doing it. And seeing that happen after 20, 25 years is the best news there is in the world.

Who do you like now?

Well, I like this girl A.J. Verdelle. There’s a girl who wrote this interesting thing called Push.

Oh, Sapphire?

Yeah, interesting stuff. I like the later books of Jamaica Kincaid. June has a new thing out. Lucille, I did her book, Generations. And now I saw a book, somebody handed me a galley by Gayl Jones. I haven’t heard from her in years and years. It’s called The Healing. I mean, this is fantastic stuff these people are still doing, because a lot of people aren’t. You must know that most of the young people now, when you ask them what art thing they want to do, if they don’t do music, they want to make movies.

They want to go where the money is.

That’s right. They don’t want to sit around and do this long and boring, isolated, no-money job.

Do you have an opinion of rap as an art form?

I find it totally compelling. I don’t know why. It’s a stopper, as they say. But I don’t have a lot to say about what is probably the most interesting part of it, which is the language. My sons listen to it all the time, and I keep saying to them, [Laughs.] What was that again? It’s like when they used to hit—you know, do graffiti. And I’d say, “What does that mean?” They’d say, “Mom, the point is that it not be overtly clear.” It’s like an underground railroad of communication. And that’s when I found it fascinating—not only in the sounds, but what was going on.

Recently, it seems to be so over-merchandised that it’s being driven by something else other than maybe the performer’s interests. There’s something about it that seems a little slick right now. I’m not sure that I’m right, but it doesn’t have that unpoliced quality. Now it looks like the police are there telling them how to misbehave. It feels so marketed. I like to see everybody get rich, but I hate to see the whole field manipulated.

But I have to tell you, I have heard rap in practically in every language in the world, there’s nothing like the rap that comes out of this country¡ I’ve heard it in Russian, German, French—it’s really everywhere. It’s just amazing how they can come up with playing the music against the music. [Laughs.] The innovation, it does my heart good to see that happen.

"I think women have been in a rage for a long time. They just didn't have any guns. But now we have the guns! The rage has always been there, but now it's quite easy to not manage it."

What do you think of someone attacking the form, like C. Delores Tucker?

All young people’s music is hated. I mean, even Mozart. Jazz. Their music was despised —because they were young. Rock. Blues. Like reggae was when it first came over here. So I always have a healthy respect for young people’s music because I know the part of it that makes other people shudder is the part that means it’s new.

I like those arguments a lot. When there’s a big canvas and a map and something happens, and everybody is in it, because that’s the only way something new and something resolved, or unresolved—it doesn’t all have to be resolved—happens. It’s the not talking that’s a problem for me.

Somebody told me at the Million Women March, there was an interesting attack by Sistah Souljah on some of the young rap girls, and their response, and some Christian-singer- type woman—all quarreling with each other. I like that kind of interrogation among these!9
various streams. I mean, I know it’s sort of antagonistic, but nothing has only two sides. Think of a young girl, like Lil’ Kim, versus an older Sistah Souljah-warrior-type versus, you know, someone who wants to sing Bessie Smith...those conversations can be quite valid. We have to talk about this stuff. And besides, people change, you know? One day Lil’ Kim will be 50.

That’ll be an interesting day.

And she’ll sit around and say, “You young people today [laughs] are outrageous.”

Are you religious?

I have a problem with institutions. I don’t have a problem with faith of certain kinds. Magic. Meanings behind the meanings of things. Incoherence. Power—you know, all these aspects of religion. But I have a problem when it gets institutionalized and frozen, and becomes formidable. So I say that I’m religious because I can’t deny my perceptions. I’m a Catholic, and I have been very much involved in my mother’s church, which is AME. And so I have always gone back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. And, I guess. ended up nowhere—except I feel nevertheless as though I am a deeply religious person.

Do you get the sort of thing that I remember García Márquez talking about—how people would ask him what the angels in his stories symbolized? And he answers, “Well, they’re angels.” [Laughter.]

Well, they think I’m sort of mystical, and...

But they don’t get that you’re not kidding.

No, they don’t. I’m not kidding, you know. I’ve had visions. I think many of us have. And some people may not recognize them as such, but those of us who are interested in an enchanted world...Even physicists talk that way. When they get to “The End,” their language becomes wholly theological: A “hand” being back there where they can’t get it. So the language runs in that area when you’re very, very deep into practically any discipline, scientific or not. But the other thing, of being deliberately alert to or just available to sights, and inner voices. If you’re really clear and focused, it seems as though the universe cooperates and reveals to you the ways of which to go. [She shrugs, and smiles ruefully.] Now, what it means is that the mind is fantastic and fabulous. Each brain reads the world a certain way. I can, I suppose, become a total rationalist and eliminate a large part of life’s experiences, or my own imagination. I choose not to do that.

I think I’d like to exhibit the best qualities of my grandparents and my parents, which was a very shrewd, practical, down-to-earth approach to life, coupled with a religion that placed them on the moral high ground—and added to that a dash of the magic, of reading the world, and understanding its science as some kind of conversation that they were having with the universe. That’s the way to live with the world.

What about when spirituality gets confused with a kind of X-Files reality where people need to believe just about anything?

Well, spirituality is like anything else. It’s hard work. You can’t just become a great net and just attract everything. You have to work at it as if you were going to law school, medical school, or whatever else—if you want to be a brain surgeon. You have to think about those things very carefully. And some of it is innovative, and some of its laws already passed down and information you have before you. But spirituality requires the same amount of intense intellectual brainpower to think about it. It doesn’t mean you just sort of drift off into Tarot cards, and you want something other than your own mind to tell you what do to. It’s an active-aggressive relationship. It’s all you, you know?

You’re rebuilding the house you lost on the Hudson River a few years back. Having your home burn down—it must be like a death.

It’s very sad, and the sadness goes on a long time. Somebody was asking me the other day for pictures of me and my sons. I had to go through it again and say I don’t have any. Or, if I’s somebody else's stuff.

So you don’t con yourself into thinking of it as a liberating experience.

Well, we’ve made a better house, but we lost a lot of things. Not in value, but the irreplaceable things. And my memory’s failing, so I need all those little documents.

Did you feel like you had to start all over?

I was rocked. And I thought about Native Americans, some of whom say, “When a house burns down, leave.” So I thought, Okay, I’ll sell it. But it has such a lovely aspect, on the river...I put it on the market, but then I thought: I’ve written all these books to the sound of that water, and the water is in my dreams. The weather was never bad on that river— I’m not leaving it! So then I changed my mind.

That helped a lot, to rebuild that house. For a while, I couldn’t talk about the fire to anybody—except people whose house had burned down. [She starts to laugh a little hysterically.] It’s surprising how many people’s houses have burned down!

I hear it’s the latest thing.

My mother’s house was burned. I was living in New York then. Her house was set on fire, I guess, and burned, and she was out of it...And she rebuilt. And I remember her during those months, she was living with my sister—and it was obsessive and debilitating and horrifying.

Jesus! Who burned down your mom’s house? Did they ever find out?

That’s an entirely different interesting one, but I’ll tell it later. [Laughs.]

Another thing I wanted to know: You seem so utterly fearless on the page—

Oh, I am fearless on the page. Oh, yes! You mean in real life?

Yeah. I mean, what scares you? Is that what you write about?

I’m sometimes frightened of that, what I write, but I can’t look away. Not there. I will not look away; that’s the one place where I’m going to, you know, make eye contact. Just feel it, and do it—it’s a free place for me. It’s not always safe, but that’s the one place where all my little vulnerabilities, and cowardices, cannot come to the surface. Not with the work.

What about the sense of that place for your characters—where the place is violated? So much of what you write is about people not respecting boundaries. Especially in Paradise, where the place is violated? People move in on it. Are you like other writers in that, you know, you have this conceit that if you put it on paper, you’re marking your spot: “This is the line. I dare you to cross the line, and come in.”

Part of the history of the race is dealing with personal transgression. You have to remember we were an owned people, in the most finite sense of that word. That is unique, and interesting, and the exodus from that is a very complicated journey. Where is the territory where you’re free? Where is the territory where you’re safe? Where is it that it’s okay to love somebody else, and know that they’re not going to be taken from you, for no reason or nothing rational? The idea of Home, or Paradise, or mine, or this domain, or language that’s ours, mine, you know—struggling to hang onto it, struggling to know what it is—is an important aspect, I think, of the life that African-Americans have led. And also the fear that somebody can just walk in your house in the middle of the night, and say, “Give me your nephew.” And your house is [she laughs bitterly]—open. So, there is that constant sense of tension and how to defend it, how to protect it, how to transcend it, or travel away from it. That seems to me to be particularly acute among African-Americans, but I think it has resonance for everybody. Resonance in terms of territory.

The biggest thing going on in the world now is the movement of peoples. Not necessarily war refugees, but just people are moving. And all of the legislation is to keep them from moving or to deal with them once they have moved, or to educate them, or to not educate them, or to throw them out or burn them or—you know—whatever. That’s what global policy is now about: What are we going to do with the people outside who are now inside? Do we keep them? Do we starve them to death and send them back as we have decided to do in the United States, you know, vis-à-vis immigration.

Now you have public spaces being treated as though they’re private. Not homelessness but streetlessness is what I call it. Privatizing all of public space: parks in which people are not welcome, streets that belong to the buildings, getting people off the street. This man was killed yesterday, right? Picked up in the garbage. A family living out in a lot, I read in the paper yesterday—a forklift ran over them. So the city has to go through the garbage to find the people because Mayor Giuliani said they cannot be in the public view? “We have to get rid of these people.” So we have put the human garbage in there with the garbage. It’s an intolerable situation. And to have your garbage home invaded? I mean, those are real conversation stoppers for me. It’s just too terrible.

It’s like writing while there’s a war on—how can you not mention the war, and what’s really at stake? You can’t sugarcoat this stuff. And you cannot look away.

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106 & Park (0:00- 0:29)

BET's music countdown show is the basis for the visual. A teenage girl is shown running into her living room, and she is eager to see if one of her favorite music videos will be shown. To her delight, Terrence J and Rocsi announce that Normani's video will be playing.

Beyonce, "Crazy In Love" (0:30-0:42 and 2:43-3:08)

A given considering Normani's vocal appreciation of the Queen Bey. To start the video within the video, 'Mani is seen strutting down the street a la 'Crazy In Love' with denim bottoms and a white tank, serving us life on a silver platter.

She also served us sexy choreography in the rain, a likely homage to Bey's iconic video. The bedazzled outfit screamed 2000s, but there was no denying there was Bey influence for the scene.

Ciara, "1, 2 Step" And/Or Ashanti, "Happy" (0:45- throughout)

Normani storms into this scene with energy, which prompts everyone else to get in formation and dance with her, reminiscent of when Ciara showed us how to 1,2 Step. Much like in the homage, everyone rallies behind CiCi to have some fun.

This could also be an homage to Ashanti's "Happy." Videos in the 2000s were clearly all about dancing in front of houses, and with the synchronization of both groups of dancers, we could also lean towards Ashanti being a definite inspiration.

Jennifer Lopez Feat. Ja Rule, "I'm Real (Remix)" (1:42-2:13)

The 2000s were all about the basketball court too, and "Motivation" screams "I'm Real." The OG video features J. Lo and Ja playfully canoodling on the court, which is also what we see during Normani's take on the hit.

Britney Spears, "...Baby One More Time" (1:54- 2:05)

You can't deny that this particular scene has Brit Brit written all over it. The Louisiana native, who is a former dancer and gymnast, pulled out all the stops in her debut music video. Normani (a fellow Louisiana girl as well as a dancer and gymnast) pays homage in a very loaded way.

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Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

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

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 Bleeker 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.


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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Keith Anthony

Come As You Are: PJ Morton On New Album, Individuality And Journey Towards Nirvana

Dun-Well Doughnuts isn’t your mom’s pastelería. The East Williamsburg hub for vegan confectionery delights has no concern with fitting in. Playing above our heads as we order several sweet-sounding treats are tunes most certainly hailing from the ‘30s or ‘40s; they’re so sonically antiquated that not even Shazam recognizes them. The shop’s furnishings give off a rustic feel that doesn’t quite match the area outside, which is (as of now) virtually untouched by gentrification.

It’s clear we’re in a spot that’s content with going against the grain, which pairs well with the overall M.O. of the artist peering over his wire-frame glasses to glance out the window while nomming on a glazed donut. He’s a soulful musician who grew up listening to pop and rock icons, and infuses traditional R&B as well as good ol’ instrumentation into his work–– he’s known for performing live adaptations of his songs with a full band in tow. Much like Dun-Well’s playlist, he doesn’t adhere to people’s sonic expectations.

“I’ve felt like an outcast [in the industry], but I've always been a loner anyway, so I thrive being by myself. I'm cool with it, I'm totally comfortable with it,” PJ Morton says as he sips water from a white paper cup on a climate-confused day in early August. The New Orleans native, who sports an all-black ensemble with multi-colored Nikes, acknowledges that his music doesn’t always fit into a mainstream box. Still, his passion for his craft has paid off in spades.

Morton is the keyboardist for the platinum-selling pop/rock band Maroon 5, but has found solo success outside of the Billboard Top 40. He won his first Grammy Award earlier this year for his lauded cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which was featured on the live recording of his highly-favored, self-released LP, 2017’s Gumbo. He’s lived his personal dreams by performing at Super Bowl LIII, on Saturday Night Live and with artists like Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Despite huge moments in his career, his latest album PAUL (released on Aug. 9) is a feel-good journey back to basics.

“[With Gumbo], it was so much about 'I need to be heard, I'm tired, this may be my last record,’” he notes. “This time, it's really like, 'Okay, you got a lot of the good things you asked for, now what? What are you gonna say now? How are you gonna be honest now? What stories are you gonna tell now?'”

The 10-song project—which boasts guest appearances from Rapsody, Jazmine Sullivan, JoJo and more—is oozing with nostalgia in more ways than one. Smart production and samples recapture the days of Motown and R&B, evident by the album’s opener “Ready” and The Gap Band-sampled “Yearning For Your Love.” PAUL also has gentle nods to the simplicities of human emotion, as certain tracks amplify the importance of possessing child-like, carefree self-confidence. This particular theme is central to the track “Kid Again,” featuring two of Morton’s three children.

“Although most people call me PJ, I came into the world as Paul, and I feel that's my purest form,” he says of the project’s straightforward, yet calculated title. “Paul is the child, and throughout the album, the nostalgic theme is me continually telling myself, 'Go back, reset…’ I was really trying to be as honest as I can, and I don't mean 'honest' as in storytelling honest, I mean the presentation and production is honest… I want [fans] to feel good, and I want them to like the songs, but I want them to hear me in saying, ‘This is Paul, this is who I am, and I want you to be who you are.’"

Additionally, PAUL turns up the volume on pro-blackness, an enormously necessary topic during a time where outsiders are working ‘round the clock to keep us muted. Political commentator Angela Rye schools non-believers about police brutality and racial inequality on the project’s thought-provoking finale, “MAGA?,” and the soulful Morton urges listeners to continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon in their communities on the funky, retrospective “Buy Back The Block.”

“I think the more we started to get pushback and the more America started to get divisive, the more I felt pride in being black, and I wanted to make that known and to stand on that,” Morton explains of the album’s key elements. “I think that art should reflect life. It's important for us as artists to be the voice of the voiceless, right? I can be louder and tell our story for people who can't tell it for themselves.”

An admittedly “curious” preacher’s kid who grew up in the Crescent City, Morton has always known music would be his life. He was introduced to some of his heroes as a youngin—his mother acquainted him with the stylings of The Beatles, and he locked in on The Fab Four after noticing he bears the same first name as Sir McCartney. As he matured, he developed an appreciation for James Taylor, Donnie Hathaway and his future collaborator, Stevie Wonder (he garnered his first solo Grammy nom with Wonder on the track “Only One”).

When prompted as to why he didn’t pursue gospel full-time despite growing up in the church and around the genre, Morton discusses that he found it too “limiting.” However, he still infuses elements of his roots in his music today (“I was experiencing too much in life, I was gaining too much knowledge in life to only talk about God specifically,” he says).

“I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”

Instead, he continued to expand his palate and repertoire by learning how to play multiple instruments such as the drums and keys. As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Morton further learned the ropes by working closely with producers such as Bryan-Michael Cox, Jazze Pha, and Jermaine Dupri, who helped shape the way he approaches and crafts a tune. Ultimately, he says the “freedom” he grew up with in NOLA helped to light a fire under him to truly pursue the art form.

“There's a high badge of honor that you wear if you're a musician in New Orleans,” he details. “‘I'm not gonna play with it, I'm not gonna joke with it. If I'm doing music, then we're gonna do it for real.’ I think that speaks to the way I try to present my art into the world. I think the qualities you have to have to be a musician there are to take it seriously and to play from the heart.”

“I was a musician before I was a songwriter, before I was a singer, and I always wanna wave that flag for musicians to be here,” he affirms as he discusses his versatile voyage through the art form. “The reason I’m able to work on so many [genres] of music is definitely that New Orleans attitude. We just do what we want, we kind of just march to the beat of our own drum.”

As detailed in his Gumbo song “Claustrophobic,” there were apprehensions about his lack of mainstream success as a solo artist early in his career. On the track, he details higher-ups discussing difficulties finding him a market (“Would you consider us changing some stuff, Like everything about who you are,” he sings, “No offense, we're just trying to make you a star”).


“I was like, ‘Wow, this is how people look at me,’” he said of the comments made to him early on. “I took [the negativity] as ammunition and gas to go wherever I was gonna go next. We choose a path that's a little different… ultimately, I really just wanna make beautiful things and hope people like it. If they don't, I'll keep it moving, and we'll keep creating.”

What is the pinnacle of success that PJ Morton wants to achieve? He’s already won a Grammy, he’s already had hit songs, and he’s already worked with one of his idols. He details that all of the mountaintops he’s climbed are simply a bonus, and what would be paramount for him is to just create. No worries of sales or chart positions–– just a man, his distinctive approach to his craft and his artistic freedom.

“I love music so much, I would do it for free,” he smiles. “So, if it feels like I could do this for free and still be happy, that's my nirvana. I can say that if I didn't have that cushion or fallback of Maroon 5, I would still be on this journey here and still going.”

“I want as many people in the world to hear my music and to be affected by it,” he continues. “If nothing ever happens anymore [musically], I'm still very blessed in this industry. I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”

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