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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Previously on Power…”

***

Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler

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

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

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

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Cincinnati Music Festival Showcases The Breadth Of Black Community Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kadeem Johnson for Everyday Afrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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