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.

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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.

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 mean...it’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 rape...an 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 do...it’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 story...an 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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What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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A post shared by NICKY JAM (@nickyjampr) on Dec 22, 2019 at 8:40am PST

“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Courtesy of Neon

Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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Meet Wande Coal: The Afrobeats Pioneer Who’s Ready To Reintroduce Himself To The World

Before Wande Coal discovered that singing was his true calling, he had dreams of being one of Missy Elliott’s dancers. The artist, one of the few who laid the foundation of the buzzing musical movement we know coming out of Nigeria today, is ready to make another shift of leveling up his global appeal on the heels of his latest release, “Again.”

The 34-year-old Lagos native, born Oluwatobi Wande Ojosipe, is the multifaceted mind behind afrobeats hits we all know so well—including his 2015 collaboration with Patoranking, “My Woman, My Everything,” his prolific linkup with DJ Tunez in “Iskaba,” as well as the groovy track “So Mi So” produced by Juls. Prior to his steady rise, Wande’s musical foundation began in church, where he picked up the piano and learned how to sing.

Nigeria's innovative take on its pop music scene emerged in the 2000s, and it was in 2007 where the singer, songwriter, and producer would join Mo’ Hits Records after its former founders Don Jazzy and D’Banj noticed him as a dancer in his music videos. He then became a fixture at Nigeria’s top record label at the time, penning some of the biggest hits to come out of the label including D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist”—the single that caught the ear of Kanye West, a moment that contributed to the imminent hype that surrounds the genre today.

In 2009, Wande stepped out with his debut album Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits. The classic LP is home to his timeless singles “Bumper to Bumper” and “Ololufe,” where it was also an indicator of afrobeats being well on its way of going global. A year later at the 2010 Headies (the Nigerian take of the Grammys), Wande would then take home a record five awards for that album. Six years later, Wanted, his second LP dropped and it did not disappoint—with “Baby Hello” being a single of note, produced by Maleek Berry. Since 2017, Wande has consistently dropped solo singles and features that showed growth in his sound and would reveal his continued relevance in afrobeats’ global expansion.

REALMS, due this March, is Wande’s first project in five years, as well as his debut under a new partnership between himself, producer Screwface’s Starstruck Management and indie distributor, EMPIRE. The five-track EP is stacked with solid collaborations with producers including Sarz, London’s Lekaa Beats and Melvitto—who produced “Again” with Screwface.

“His process is crazy,” Melvitto shares. “He'll just go in a room and lock the door and just be in there. You'll hear him singing but you don't know what he's doing in there. Then he'll come back with his laptop and there are 30 voice notes in there that are two minutes long, of just song after song. He'll tell me to take them and find something that I like.”

Melvitto and Wande began to consistently work together after they met while “Iskaba” was in production. The producer also adds that “Again” was recorded in New York in August 2018, with parts of the track recorded in London and Nigeria.

“It's definitely a different record,” he continues. “For me, as a fan of Wande Coal, as a fan of music and as a fan of making great music, I always try to push artists to go beyond what they normally do outside of what they know. Wande's voice is so crazy—people don't get to hear it that often since he does more uptempo things. But with giving him the opportunity to have him sing on a slower song, you have to pay attention to his voice.”

Tina Davis, EMPIRE’s head of A&R, wholeheartedly agrees. “It's infectious,” she says. “When you're in A&R, you're hearing [a track] in its rough stages. I love it when I can hear a record from that point and see or know where it can go. Every time I listened to the record I wanted to hear it again—no pun intended. I love what he's saying. I think we need more records about women that are supportive of women, positive and records that show love. I think the world needs a lot more love today.”

Although Wande Coal is renowned, there are still pockets of the pop music market that have yet to get to know him. For Davis, that’s why EMPIRE couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him to build a higher platform that reflects where he started as well as his contribution to music. “He’s extremely talented and I feel like he hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves,” she adds. “And people are stepping up for him.”

As much as his collaborators sing his praises, Wande, in turn, does the same for them. He’s one who says so much using few words. His humility is one folks can learn from as it truly takes a village—in conversation, he amplifies those around him in lieu of bigging up himself. Admitting he’s a gentle soul and a loverboy at heart, the crooner pulls from life’s experiences, especially moments of heartbreak, to pour his reflections out in a track like “Again.”

When asked when he truly knew music was the right path for him, he mentions fervently, “I feel so, and I know so.” It’s evident that Wande Coal is in tune with his calling and his purpose. It manifests in his music.

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VIBE: How has linking with EMPIRE been for you as you begin to engage with a wider audience? Wande Coal: It's a great move for me because I never had that—this is a first for me. At first, I thought it was a joke, but now, it's becoming a reality. I'm really blessed and grateful.

"Again" is a standout track in your upcoming release. Your vocals and how you approach melodies are a marker of your impact to afrobeats all these years, and it's a track where the focus is on you. What was your creative process putting the song together? My surroundings, what I go through, my environment, my feelings, my relationships—everything around me inspires me. For "Again," I was going through a lot emotionally. I lost a girl and I'm trying to tell her that I want her back, I don't want to lose her and I want life to change and it's never going to be the same [without] her again.

With the REALMS EP, what inspired you to come out with new music now? It's my first time ever having an international major establishment back me, so it's a good look because it's been long overdue. Now I'm just ready to drop that and show the entire world that I got something in me.

You're an OG in the afrobeats game, but for a lot of folks, this will be their first time realizing that they should've been hip to you long before now. Just looking back on your career from your Mohits days to stepping out on your own, what else should new listeners know about you? Besides all of that, I was first a writer. I wrote, "Why Me," "Oliver Twist" [and] I developed Wizkid and Davido. I wrote songs with Wizkid, I gave Davido the name "OBO"—they both used to live in my house. Davido left school in Atlanta and came to my house [in Nigeria] twice using his school fees. Wizkid came by often too because I had three studios and I was inspiring them. I'm glad I was able to be a role model for them. They're big artists now, alongside Burna Boy and Maleek Berry, and the feelings are mutual. I'm glad they're doing so well.

How have you been able to balance being so multifaceted in Nigeria's music landscape? To me, everybody uses the same type of template, so I decided to always create new sounds to stand out and be different. When you check out songs like "Iskaba" and "So Mi So," it's a different vibe to what everyone is singing. I'm glad that people appreciate it and I'm glad to lead the change since I was there from the start. I stay ready to always change the game and create new sounds. I don't like to sing what I sang before and avoid singing the same lyrics.

When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine Nigeria's pop music scene would become as big and recognizable as it is today? Yes—see, I had a vision. When I met Mohits in 2006 they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was trying to take this music global. Because I listened to the likes of Usher, Akon, T. Pain, Michael Jackson—they inspired me to be what I am today [as an artist]. I decided to fuse both my culture and American culture together. That's why I sound the way I do.

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