Little Brother
Jenny Regan

Little Brother On Building Friendship, Bucking Nostalgia, And Embracing Freedom

Little Brother is back for the first time in nearly a decade, with a stronger friendship and the same musical brilliance that made them such an important act.

When Little Brother first emerged in the early 2000s, they impressed fans with 9th Wonder’s warm, sample-based production and Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh’s smart, relatable rhymes about holding down regular jobs and pursuing rap success while lobbing jokes and life lessons along the way. During a time where many people wrongfully pigeonholed the South for snap, crunk and trap music, Little Brother brought a different vibe from North Carolina, adding thoughtfulness to their fun, in the lineage of Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest. Their first two albums, The Listening and The Minstrel Show, earned critical acclaim and die-hard fan bases. But as many groups do, Little Brother eventually broke up: 9th Wonder left the group and has continued his success as a producer, and Phonte and Pooh recorded two more albums together before calling it quits. Both have continued to make music since then. Phonte has released two solo rap albums and earned a Grammy as half of Foreign Exchange, an R&B/soul group he formed with Netherlands producer Nicolay. Pooh has released several albums since the group ended as well, along with using his industry experience to manage Dreamville rapper Lute and producer Blakk Soul.

But while each of them has earned continued prosperity in the music business separately, their fans have consistently begged for Little Brother to come back together. And after a reunion show that was chronicled in a documentary, this year, they did exactly that: Phonte and Big Pooh, sans 9th Wonder, released May The Lord Watch. The group’s vibe is still intact as strong as ever with their thoughtful rhymes and hilarious skits, and the album doesn’t only sound like they never broke up – it feels like they’ve actually gotten closer. That tone continued when they visited the VIBE office in New York City, where they’re laughing and sharing memories between answering questions. “We’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers,” Phonte said. “We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.”

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VIBE: I’ve heard a lot of stories about how artists resolve differences. Sometimes, things reach a boiling point and the two parties sit down and hash things out. Other times, they won’t even speak about the issues because they weren’t truly a big deal in the first place – they just start working together again. How did you two get on the same page?

Rapper Big Pooh: Niggas aired it all out. I saw when 9th and I first started back talking, we didn’t have a real conversation. It was more like, “the past is the past and we’re good,” but a lot of shit was still unresolved because you never have that conversation. So when ‘Te and I first got on the phone for the first time, it was a four-hour conversation.

Phonte: You can’t just treat the infection, you have to treat the cause.

Pooh: We went through it all, man. It was deeper than just, “I apologize.” We broke it all the way down so, if this is the last conversation we have, I’m going to tell you everything. Everything is on the table. When we broke it all down, we realized, niggas just didn’t know how to communicate certain things. And when you don’t communicate certain things, you’re left to assume … As a mature man at this point, you’re like, “damn dog, I really didn’t talk to you over bullshit. We could’ve cleared this up and that would’ve been the end of it.” Even to this day, we make sure that we’re upfront with each other. “Ay bro, I said such and such yesterday, I didn’t mean it that way” just to make sure we stay there, because things could easily get out of control.

Phonte: Keep that line of communication open because you need to check in with each other. Even with the album title May The Lord Watch, you’re sending well wishes to someone – while we’re apart from each other I hope the Lord is watching over you, but at the same time, we’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers. We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.

VIBE: What is it like for you guys to be so close now, when Little Brother's rift was so public before?

Phonte: With me and Pooh, our rift was never really public. Me and 9th had a moment where our shit got real public, but me and Pooh never had that.

Pooh: People didn’t know we weren’t talking until we said we weren’t talking.

Phonte: It was a three-man group, but if you’re all frat brothers, me and Pooh crossed the burning sands. We were in the foxhole together. That wasn’t the case with the third member. He was like grad chapter; you’re on paper. The dynamic just ain’t the same. We all brothers, but… Even in our disagreements, when [Pooh and I] weren’t talking to each other, it never got to the point of disrespect. We never went out on each other like that because even at the root of disappointment, anger and hurt, there was always respect there. I think that made it a little bit easier, vs. if things got super ugly on the Internet where nothing dies, if we had some stupid online war.

Pooh: That was definitely always there. And I’m not a fool. I’m not going to war with a nigga who’s a magician with words online. [both artists laugh] Nigga’s an English major! Magna cum laude! I’m not going to war with that nigga online that knows everything about me.

Phonte: That’s the thing. You get in a beef with a nigga you’re cool with, that is assured mutual destruction. It’s over. Because by the time that shit is over with, the only niggas y’all gonna have is each other. Because everything else is over. Your marriage, your job, your family. We blowing all this shit up.

Pooh: Can’t go to war with a nigga that knows where the bones are buried.

VIBE: When I heard May The Lord Watch, I was surprised by just how much it truly sounded like a Little Brother album. Both of you have done so much since then, so I was didn’t know what to expect. How much effort went into capturing that feel, and how much of it was natural?

Phonte: It was hard. I can’t front. This is the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my career. You know what you’re looking for, you know what the feeling is, you know in your heart and your bones what Little Brother is and what that sound is. But you don’t know it until you hear it. So trying to explain to another producer what you’re looking for – you know what it is, but I’ll know it when I hear it. The good part is that if you’re working with a good producer, when they find it and you say “that’s it!” they can move forward. But it was hard. We went through a lot of tracks and probably three or four different configurations of the album. We started in October 2018 and the final finish was probably three weeks ago. It was a real painstaking process. I’m happy that it sounds easy to people, but there was a lot of work that went into that.

VIBE: Was there any hesitation to do the album at all once you realized 9th Wonder wouldn’t be part of it?

Pooh: I think once he was removed from the picture, it actually became less complicated. The thing people don’t understand is that ever since the beginning of recording The Minstrel Show, it’s just been me and Te anyway. Once he was back in the picture, it was really back to ground zero because we had to figure out how this works. If we were Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron, Wade and LeBron been best friends since fucking forever, now you gotta integrate Chris Bosh into the picture, how does that work? When he was out the picture it was less complicated and we could just focus on the work. … We just dove in. Niggas didn’t check the temperature of the water, we didn’t see how deep it was, we didn’t know if anybody else was in the pool. Niggas just jumped in and saw if we could swim. That helped us because we didn’t take the time to overthink it.

… We started at the beginning of October. By the time we realized it was official that 9th was not going to be in the picture, in December, first thing I said to Te was: “nigga I know we’re starting over, but we’re here now, we gotta finish this shit out.”

Phonte: That was a real conversation we had. At that point I had to ask him if he still wanted to do this, because I didn’t want to assume. We started the record over again from scratch and rebuilt it from nothing, and kept working and pushing through until we finished it.

VIBE: Was is frustrating for fans to always be asking you guys to get back together, when you knew you weren’t in the space to do it?

Pooh: It was definitely frustrating. Each of us individually had to learn to reframe their want. I had to think about it from a standpoint of, “damn, some shit I did in 2002 and 2003 is still ringing off. That’s so flattering. Why would you want to not have that happen?” I thank my man Rich Bartell for this, man. I expressed my frustration and he said, “you gotta understand what this means: when you have this type of reaction, the game isn’t finished with y’all. Until y’all come back and set shit right, this is gonna happen.” He proved prophetic, but that changed the way I framed the idea of people asking for Little Brother. At that point, once I made that change mentally, I was able to take it more in stride. It’s frustrating as fuck when you’re trying to promote a new record, and people are saying, “yeah that’s cool, but when we gon get that Little Brother?” But at the same time, I really did some shit that’s resonating with people after all this time. Who can really say that, especially today, when you can be popping today and by next month, who?

VIBE: How did you react when A Tribe Called Quest dropped their final album, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service in 2016?

Phonte: I was just amazed that the shit got done. It was amazing to see, something I never thought we’d get in this lifetime. And Phife passing just put it in a different space because this was the last time we’re going to hear his voice. He had verses on that album that were as good as anything else in his catalog. Even though he was at the end of his life physically, creatively he still had juice left in the tank. That informed us when we were working on May The Lord Watch. We aren’t making a nostalgic play. We’re not just coming back and making The Minstrel Show 2, or The Listening 2, or Get Back Again.

Nostalgia is bullshit. When you fall in love with a song, and people say “I love this thing,” you don’t love the song. What you love is that time in your life when you had less responsibilities and you were 40 pounds lighter. That’s what you love, that’s what you want to go back to. It’s what that song represents. “That was before I had you, me and your mom was kicking it good.” I can’t compete with your feelings or your memories. … It’s not that I don’t believe in sequels. If we’re talking movies, if there’s more of a story to tell, then it’s cool. But [often, with music], it’s just a marketing technique. It’s just niggas saying, “I’m gonna take my biggest album, then call this new album my biggest album part two,” but that may not have shit to do with your biggest album that you named it after. With Wayne (Tha Carter) and Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, it was more of a series. But with The Blueprint, he could’ve stopped after the first one. I’m always living in the present and thinking what’s the best way to serve my audience now? We don’t need The Color Purple 2: Mistah Strikes Back. (laughs)

VIBE: Phonte, I want to take a couple of quotes from your music. On “Dance In The Reign” from Charity Starts At Home, you said, “No one can say his life ain’t his / Some may even say underachiever, ‘cause they are not believers / that you don’t want the world, but I done seen the world / and if you ever saw hell, you wouldn’t want it either.” On this new one, you say, “peace of mind rarely comes with a check attached.” When did you begin to think that way?

Phonte: I started seeing it when I started having conversations with rappers who, on paper had more than me, and were trying to convince me that I should do this, but yet they were miserable. I remember a very specific phone call one time where I had a certain MC hit me and he was talking. “I’m trying to sign you.” I was just like, “dude, no. I’d never sign to another rapper, are you shitting me?” He’s going on. “I think you’re one of the best.” It was cool and it was fine, but at the end of the conversation, it turned into, “man, I’ve got one record left on my deal, and I’m out of this shit. I’m going to do me.” I stopped him: “I want you to understand what just happened. You’re calling me to try to convince me that I need the thing that you’re selling, but I already have the thing that you want, which is freedom.” That was the end of the conversation.

VIBE: Pooh, you really bodied this album too. There’s the line that I quoted, “my pen used to run across the page doing suicides,” on "All In A Day." And on “Right On Time,” you talk about delivering UberEats and being bittersweet that people didn't recognize you. What did it take for you to be comfortable sharing that much of yourself?

Pooh: Getting comfortable with who I am. I’m a very private person. You look on my Instagram, and it’s just me and people I’m doing business with. But as I was writing this record...we criticize people who rap about drugs and say, “you’re only showing one side, the glamorous side.” Or we criticize people on Instagram, “you’re just showing the good shit happening in your life.” I just decided when I was working, I gotta let these people know. This is what being a real musician is: peaks and valleys. When I hit that valley, I fucked up money, I fucked up opportunities. A lot of shit I fucked up on. That’s what I had to do to maintain. I’ve substitute taught, I’ve delivered packages for Amazon, and I drove Uber.

Phonte: I think that’s something that resonated with people because particularly now, I’m seeing the death of influencer culture. The jig is up on that shit. This buddy of mine said his girlfriend’s Uber driver was someone who’s killing it on social media. Even in those times where Pooh was substitute teaching or driving Uber, there was always pride in his work. The message to artists in 2019, there is no shame in an honest day’s pay. In this music shit, until you get to a point where you’re really established and you’re shit is on on, this shit is a sandcastle on a windy day at best. Until you get that rock-solid foundation, there is no shame in being a working musician.

VIBE: So what has it been like to take all those experiences to now managing other artists?

Pooh: That’s probably the best thing to happen for me, because I know what not to do. I have Lute, Blakk Soul, and my guy T. Smith. They’re all in different places in their careers and they’re all different ages, so it’s a wealth of information for them. And I don’t hide shit from them. So they know what it is. It’s okay if you have to get a job to support yourself until you don’t have to work that job anymore. And once you don’t have to work that job, let me show you how to budget your money accordingly so you aren’t doing stupid shit with your money, you make $100,000 in a year but you can’t account for $90,000 of it. I can make music, I have connections, but my greatest benefit for my artists is that I am an artist.

Phonte: I’ve always thought – and not saying this about Pooh, because I think he’s an amazing player – but a lot of times, the best players don’t make the best coaches. I think it’s easier to give instruction for someone like Pooh who has had those struggles and had to learn to play the game three or four different ways. It makes you a more compassionate coach because you can look at that kid say, “I see what you’re struggling with because I struggled with that,” versus a Jordan or somebody that had a lot of natural ability but isn’t able to teach that. Pooh is one of the best A&Rs I knew. He was responsible for bringing so many people in our circle. He was the first one to put Darien Brockington on a record, and that led to me and him working together. Pooh was the first one to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar, he was doing records with TDE way back before they were TDE. Pooh was responsible for King Mez coming into Dre’s camp and writing all that shit on Compton. He was the one making all those things happen, so when I saw him going into management, I knew he would kill it.

VIBE: A lot of rappers, if they aren’t from a popular rap area already, their goal is to put their city on the map. You guys actually did that: you put North Carolina on the map. Now there’s Cole, DaBaby, Rapsody.

Phonte: Me and Pooh say all the time: we were lead blockers. It wasn’t a glory position, but we helped clear the way and make daylight for these other brothers to come on. You just have to thank God that your influence was able to open that door. Because you could’ve been a wack nigga who opened the door and fucked it up for everybody. (laughs) It’s not a glory position, but me and Pooh never did it for the glory. We did it out of love for the music, a way to support our families, make beautiful records, and that was the end of it.

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Bail Reform, Civil Rights, And Why Hip-Hop Journalists Need To Get Involved

The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.

As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.

In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.

Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.

For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court. 

As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.

“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons. 

“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”

Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers. 

With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing--and that’s just a few examples.

“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”

As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences. 

It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.

“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

 

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Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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