Tiffany-Stevenson-2-1564756765 Tiffany-Stevenson-2-1564756765
Duane Bonaparte

Views From The Studio: Tiffany Stevenson Tracks Background Singing Journey And Beyond

From singing background for Ro James to lending her talents for Tyler, The Creator’s 'Igor' album, Tiffany Stevenson’s vocals (her stage name being Tréi Stella) continue to shine beyond the booth.

Since the age of 13, Tiffany Stevenson knew a career in music was a God-given declaration. From singing in church choirs to providing background vocals for gospel greats like Kierra Sheard and The Clark Sisters, Stevenson's path throughout the music industry was essentially ordained.

With her roots firmly cemented in the church and a strong faith-based mentality, Stevenson took a leap of faith that led the native New Yorker to pack her things and move to Los Angeles to further her career. While on tour in Europe in 2018, the vocalist said she recruited a few people to scout apartments in the City of Angels. By the time she returned, the keys were waiting for her to begin living in her new abode. The experiences from the Big Apple translated into a go-getter attitude that afforded Stevenson the opportunity to tour with Jessie J, perform onstage with Stevie Wonder before moving to L.A., and sing background on a few of Tyler, the Creator’s tracks for his Igor album.

For VIBE's Views From The Studio, Stevenson dissects her time in the studio with Tyler, her first audition, and walking by faith and not by sight.


VIBE: Who are some artists that have inspired you throughout your career?
Tiffany Stevenson: Faith Evans, for sure. I tell people all the time Faith is like my Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé but I feel like Faith doesn’t get the credit that she deserves. You can’t really talk about R&B without mentioning Faith Evans. Her sound, her pen, she’s just somebody that I’ve always looked up to and aspired to be like because I feel like she’s kind of underrated but she’s such a legend. Erica Campbell is somebody else that I look up to. I call her superwoman because she’s a mom, a wife, a first lady, a radio host, an artist and then she’s Erica, and she finds time to do all of these amazing things. I don’t know how she does it and I look at her like it’s crazy. I would say those two for sure.

What purpose does gospel music serve to you as a singer?
It’s about the message. The message, the soul behind it, the feeling you get when you hear certain words. There are a bunch of memes out right now that says gospel music hits different when you’re going through something and I don’t want to say everybody writes or sings songs about being down and out, but it makes you think and it makes you extremely grateful. You are who you are, it may not be where you want to be, but it’s not where you should be. I don’t feel like we’re worthy enough to be so blessed by God and it’s so crazy how He still affords us grace and mercy even after all the crappy stuff that we do. When you hear songs that remind you of that it feels good.

In your Instagram bio, you wrote “Psalm 37:4.” What significance does that passage hold?
It says that “If you delight yourself in the Lord, He’ll give you the desires of your heart.” There's another scripture that says, “Acknowledge him in all your ways He’ll direct your path.” I feel like if you put God first, make him the head of your life—I know a lot of people say that, sometimes people don’t even know what that means—but if you put God first I feel like things line up for you so easy. It’s easy to worry about stuff that doesn’t add up and that’s where faith comes in, but I feel like if you allow him to take control of your life completely, you don’t have to worry about your next move or how things are going to work out. You just put your faith and your trust in him and let him do what you need him to do, what you asked him to do. I like to delight myself in God because I want the desires of my heart and I want my dreams to come true. I want to be in his will, ultimately. I don’t mean to sound super churchy but that’s what it is.

What goes into being a background singer?
Interestingly enough somebody yesterday asked me the three tips on how does a singer book more jobs or something like that and I just said you have to be professional. Ultimately people have to like you to hire you and that doesn’t necessarily mean personality, but I feel like you learn your music, you show up on time, you treat everybody with respect, you look and sound the part and you just have to be ready because these calls come out of nowhere sometimes. Some people have to go through audition processes. I’ve been blessed enough to not have to go through that but when somebody calls you, be ready, have your passport. That’s definitely important. I remember getting a call, I was so mad I couldn’t do it but I got a call to go to Japan with Janet Jackson and they were like, “Do you have your passport?” I’m like, “My bag is at the door.” They ended up finding somebody else who was already in Japan, but situations like that you just never know. I always tell people to be ready and enjoy what you do. When you love what you do and show up it makes work not feel like work. But to answer your question, I just feel like I learn the music, I try to blend well with whoever is next to me and just have fun.

That’s good advice especially with your example with Janet Jackson. Japan is huge and Janet Jackson is even bigger. Were you able to circle back with her team?
No, it was a one-time thing. I was grateful to even be considered to do something like that especially with a legend like Janet Jackson. But it showed me that people like me enough to think of me, to call me, but then people think that I’m that good to where I can sing for somebody like her. I know those kinds of calls will come back around. I’m not worried but that was really dope.

Do you remember your first audition?
My first audition was with John Legend. I was so young. I used to audition all the time but John Legend was my first audition, and I remember auditioning for Jazmine Sullivan. After the audition, I had a show of my own and I had to leave that audition and go to the venue. Jazmine was sitting in my soundcheck. I was so nervous at the audition because you look up to these people and you listen to these people on the radio so for them to say sing a song for me it just adds a whole bunch of nerves. I was super nervous, but when I got to where I had to sing, I’m singing like it’s just me in my house in the living room or shower and Jazmine was sitting in on my soundcheck. When I finished she was so mad at me, like, “Why didn’t you sing like that earlier?” I’m like, “Because you are you!” (Laughs) I didn’t get called to actually work with them in that capacity but down the line, I was still able to work with John Legend. I just recently did the iHeartRadio Awards with him. When the movie Selma came out, I did all of his New York promo stuff so it eventually worked out. I didn’t tour with him, but we did get to work together and now me and Jazmine are cool.

Throughout those processes, how do you get over the nerves? Is it the more you do the less nervous you become?
Well, I would say that over the years I’ve definitely come into my own. I’ve come into who I’m supposed to be if that makes sense. I’m not as nervous anymore. I’m kind of ridiculous with things as it pertains to just doing stuff and not thinking about it. My friends call me crazy because I used to be super shy and now it’s just like it is what it is. This is what I’m doing and that’s it. But I haven’t had to audition for anything since then, so I’m not sure if I can answer that. I don’t get nervous now. If it’s my own show, trying to win over an audience especially somewhere where no one knows who you are, that’s nerve-wracking but you do what you do and if they like it they like it, and if they don’t they don’t. But it is what it is.

Another major moment is Kanye West’s Sunday Service. Walk me through the process of how you became a part of the ensemble and performing at Coachella?
This was right around the time I had just finished the last show of the tour I was on. This was around New Year’s and I had a short break. I got a call from one of my friends asking me if I could show up to a rehearsal. I didn’t know what or who it was for, I just showed up and that’s when I found out it was for Kanye. We didn’t know what it was, how long it was going to go on but it eventually turned into something super dope and beautiful. I’ve been rocking with him. Coachella was amazing. It was my first time at Coachella and we had 50,000 people there. It was kind of crazy to be on a hill singing about Jesus and dancing and having fun. It’s kind of crazy.

What were the rehearsals like? Was it just as energetic and therapeutic as the actual showcase?
We have fun. Like I said if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. Most of the people I knew there, some people I had just met because I’m new to L.A. but rehearsals are just as dope as us actually having to sing in front of people.

You also worked with Tyler, the Creator on his Igor album. Can you describe the process behind “I Think?”
I think that’s the one with Solange on it. He was just playing some records and he felt like he had ideas, he could hear them but he couldn’t sing them obviously. He’s not a singer (Laughs) so he just asked us to do whatever he heard in his head. That one was pretty easy. We sang on top of what Solange did. My friend Amanda [Brown], she did some ad-libs toward the end of the song.

Also “Igor’s Theme?”
That was actually my favorite one and not because I’m on it. He told us that Lil Uzi Vert was the one that wrote that hook: “Ridin’ ‘round town, they gon’ feel this one.” We were singing on top of that and I was being silly and I did something in the booth. He was like, “Do that! You have to do that!” I ended up doing something super-churchy on the song and he actually kept it. I have a solo part towards the end of that song so that was pretty cool.

And lastly, “Gone Gone/Thank You.”
That was another song that he heard what he wanted in his head and he just needed us to do it. That song reminded me of Stevie Wonder, the chord changes in it. I like that one, too. That was basically it. He wanted us to sing whatever he heard in his head. He really shocked me though because I didn’t know…when you hear Tyler, the Creator, I remember he had that show on Adult Swim and I used to be like, “What is wrong with him? He’s crazy,” until I actually met him and I was like, “Oh, he’s like a freaking genius.” He’s my best friend in my head. It was really dope working with him. He plays, he produces, he writes and he knows his music. I was really shocked. That was a dope experience.

I feel like that was the consensus for some music lovers who weren’t familiar with his previous work. Personally for me, like how you said you were shocked while listening to this album, I was also like this wasn’t something that I expected.
It definitely shocked me.

How did you come onboard?
I got a call from one of my friends. He just asked if I was available for a session and I said, “Yeah, why not? It’s money so let’s get it.” When we pulled up I was like, “Oh Tyler, cool!” I didn’t know what exactly he was doing but it was as simple as a phone call.

What power does music possess to you and what do you think it possesses to others?
I feel like overall when people say music is a universal language, it’s absolutely true. I’ve been in countries where they don’t speak the same language as I do but the music appeals to them the same way. I’ve seen people cry. It’s a feeling that they can’t explain. Honestly, I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t doing music. I think about that all the time. I don’t want to say it saved my life because I wasn’t in danger or at the brink of doing something else but I don’t know if I could describe it. It’s afforded me opportunities that I probably wouldn’t get doing anything else. I’m on my second passport. I got to meet some of the world’s biggest stars. I get to call some of those people friends. Music has definitely changed my life.

Your songs “Waiting 4 U” and “You’re The One,” particularly “Waiting 4 You,” gave me late ‘90s early 2000s vibes. Walk me through the process of working on that melody?
B. Slade who produced it along with two other producers, he wrote the song and we’ve been working with each other for a while. I’ve always known him but we started working with each other back in 2016. I released “You're The One” in 2016 and he wrote that one, too. He released that years ago. He gave me that song and it was my first single being introduced as Tréi Stella. That’s my artist name; my favorite beer, and my favorite number. But the “Waiting 4 U” sample came from Guy and Teddy Riley. I think the song is called “Piece Of My Love.” That’s where he got the idea from. I love that song.

Do the ‘90s or 2000s captivate you when you’re in the booth trying to catch a certain aura?
Definitely. I don’t want to say that’s when music meant something, but the music that we hear today... Well first of all everybody sounds the same in my opinion, and everybody is on this catch a vibe wave. But I’m used to honest singing, soul singing, R&B with a little bit of church in it and I miss that. I want to make ‘90s R&B popular again with a flare, with a little twist. There’s no song from the ‘90s that you play now and don’t feel like you’re back in the ‘90s, the song never gets old. That’s for Mary J. Blige, SWV, Faith Evans, 702, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott. Back then music felt good, not that music today doesn’t feel good but I miss the old sound.

Given that you also write songs, can you describe your writing process? Where do you pull inspiration from to make fans and listeners feel a certain emotion?
I think about when I hear music what it makes me feel like. What do the sounds put me in a mind of? I wrote this song back in 2013. I released it on my birthday and it’s called “Old Thing.” When I heard it, it reminded me of an old Biggie song. I just started thinking about, “Man, I miss when music felt good. I miss the old sound of R&B,” like you were just talking about. That’s how the title came about. “I just want that old thing back.” I just started thinking about how we get into situations where it starts off good then things get rocky and then you guys aren’t together anymore but then you sit around and think about “I miss that, I want that old thing back.” That’s how that song came about but I usually just let the music tell the story for me and then think of what’s going on with me personally that may help somebody else or I don’t have to feel like I’m alone. Because every girl goes through a breakup or somebody cheating on them. All these little things I think I’m in this world alone dealing with. I try to think about me but I think about other people and I try to write from an honest point.

The first time I saw you perform, it was with Ro James in New York City I think in 2012 or 2013. That’s when I realized you went to Saint Michael Academy, too. I was the year below your year.
Oh wow!

Since you recall that Ro James concert, can you share your experience then? That was six years ago and now you’re more established in music. Can you share from that point what can you recall from the stage and now witnessing that Ro James is also a widely known artist too?
That was actually cool. It was just us on stage. It wasn’t a regular set up where a singer has two or three background singers and a full band. It literally was just me and Ro and we just had fun. He allowed me to be myself. He gave me room to sing at any point in the song I felt like it. That felt really good because I’ve worked with a lot of artists who have been slightly insecure or intimidated by who they get to sing background for them. I’ve been fired from situations just because an artist was insecure. And here it is, I’m not trying to take any shine away from you but I’m doing my job and some people can’t handle when you sing to them or they feel like you’re prettier. You didn’t have to go beyond limits and measures to look a certain way so some people get a little intimidated. Shout out to Ro for allowing me to be myself and sharing his platform when he didn’t have to. That’s so dope you remember that, too.

That memory always stuck with me because Ro James was one of my first interviews when I started at VIBE as an intern. It was my chance to prove to my editors I could write. (Laughs) What has been your fondest memory within your career thus far?
I have so many. I sang background for Stevie Wonder at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party. That was iconic. I don’t know if this is my fondest memory but I remember being in high school and having to leave school a little early because I had soundcheck at Madison Square Garden down the street for a big show. That was pretty dope. It’s more to the story but when I said this may not be the fondest, I sang at the Garden in Uggs. What I wanted to wear didn’t fit. It was a little too big so I was waiting for somebody from wardrobe to give me a safety pin. After soundcheck, I thought I had time to go back to the dressing room. All the lights went out and the show started. I was on stage with Uggs on and I had to hold up my clothes. (Laughs) I still sang at the Garden.

Also, my very first tour was with Jessie J. We were out for three weeks. It was my first time in London, Paris, we went everywhere.

Who were you performing for at MSG?
They had a show called a Night of Gospel. At the time I was singing with The Clark Sisters. I used to travel with Karen when I was 15, 16. That particular show I sang with The Clark Sisters.

What was it like singing with Stevie Wonder?
It was pretty iconic. He was super sweet and I was shocked. Me and the other two singers were like “Whoa!” We sang with a lot of people that night but Stevie Wonder, c’mon. It was really dope.

Do you have a dream artist that you want to work with next?
I really want to work with Drake. I think Drake is a super creative, he’s lyrically talented and I like to hear his ideas when it comes to melodies. Eric Bellinger, he’s one of my favorite writers and probably DJ Camper. He’s taking over music right now. He produced a lot of music for H.E.R. and I was actually in the studio with him last night. He let me hear some of his album he’s putting out this year. He’s really dope.

What’s coming up next for you?
I’m preparing to release the next single off my EP along with the visuals as I did for “Waiting 4 You” and then actually put the entire EP out. I’ll finally have a whole body of music out. I’m really excited about that because I feel like it’s long overdue. I feel like I’m taking a long time but I don’t want to just put music out because I have music. I want it to be right. I’m working on the next single and pushing the EP and trying to do more shows in different places. Not just New York or L.A. I feel like I’ve only been doing a lot of shows in New York, L.A., Atlanta. I want to branch out into different cities and start to build my fanbase. I’m just working on the Tréi Stella brand as a whole.

Is there a timeline for the EP?
Right now we’re looking at August, early September. I don’t know how it’s going to happen but I’m not going to worry about how it’s going to happen because I feel like it’s going to happen.

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6 Pop Culture Tributes In Normani's Jam-Packed "Motivation" Video

Since its release this morning at midnight (Aug. 16), Normani has been the name on everybody's lips. The former Fifth Harmony member dropped a video for her latest single, "Motivation," which shows off the 23-year-old's incredible dance moves and also pleasantly pays homage to some of our favorite visuals and pop-culture moments from the 2000s.

"Motivation" was produced by ILYA, and Normani revealed that Ariana Grande was one of the song's co-writers. The video was directed by Daniel Russell and Dave Meyers, who is as iconic (and throwback) as it gets. Take a look at a few moments the video pays homage to below.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keith Anthony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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