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Markus Prime

Illustrator Markus Prime Talks 'Oh Nah.,' Sex Positivity, And Anime's Lack Of Melanin

One of Markus Prime’s latest works of art created controversy, conversation, and has quickly become one of the most talked about items on Instagram.

What do Estelle, Cree Summers, Megan Thee Stallion’s security guard, and the whole of Black Instagram have in common?

They all love illustrator Markus Prime.

The preacher’s kid from Warren, Ohio with the sex positive comic strip, Oh Nah. (Ed. Note: stylized with the period at the end), has been under the spotlight before. His innovative flair with a pen and pixel gave many folx pause when his book B.R.U.H. offered an alternative to the melanin-deprived works of Nate Kitch, Maldo, and Petra Eriksson. Also known as Black Renditions of Universal Heroes, Prime directly addressed the representation of Black women in pop culture by using his work to draw them as superheroes.

“I always drew out Peanuts characters like Charlie Brown, but I’d make them Black to look like me,” he told this very publication in a 2016 sit-down chat. “I wanted to see more women of color. I could complain about it or start contributing.” His art would go viral in ways even he couldn’t imagine. Outside of B.R.U.H., his depiction of Disney princesses Jasmine and Pochahontas smoking hookah went viral, eventually being repurposed into images used on iPhone cases, pins, and T-shirts. “I’m just trying to show that Blackness is infinite.”

Now based in Los Angeles, Prime’s conversation-driven illustrations have turned heads and turned Oh Nah. into a project full of sex-positive Black representation. His uplifting, artistic portrayal of couples extends from his personal life and from those of friends and muses that help to inspire the work that averages 8,000 to 10,000 likes on Instagram. From relishing in the pleasures of self-love to using Star Wars Jedi training as a metaphor for hitting the G-spot, Prime has tastefully brought Black sex into our timelines and garnered a healthy, loyal Instagram following.

 

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Before you get in the club there’s a cover at the door.

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In the past year alone, he has seen his numbers jump from 180K to now, as of this writing, 227K followers, and we’re not the only ones who have noticed. “I’ve definitely had some conversations with some people this year,” Prime told this author during our phone call. “I can’t say too much, but there are bigger plans on the horizon. I am definitely planning on making [Oh Nah.] coffee table books and I would love for this to become something that’s longer and in animated form.” Uncompromising and unfiltered, Markus Prime spoke with VIBE once again to talk about the origins of Oh Nah. comic, how talking about anal play and same-sex relationships blew up his comments section, and why Black women will always be his creative muse.

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VIBE: First question I have for you Markus is about how the concept of Oh Nah. came about.

Markus Prime: It’s kind of funny [laughs]. [At the time] I kind of hit a wall creatively. I wasn’t inspired. Last year was kind of difficult [for me]. I felt like I was getting repetitive and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

So, I was going through my Instagram feed — I follow a lot of comics — and I decided to see if I could just do one of the ones that I really enjoy seeing. I thought that I’m kind of funny and so I just drew one of my own [in that style] right before I went to a convention. I did it and I didn’t think anything else about it.

I was enjoying the convention and then a few hours later, I looked on my phone and [my post] has about 8,000 likes [laughs]. I’m like, ‘Wow, what the hell?!’ I didn’t think it was going to go like that, so yeah, it really was just a spur of the moment thing.

And that inspired you to continue Oh Nah. off of the response you got online?

Yeah, man, yeah! I thought even then that it was a one time thing, but that one took off and I was surprised. ‘Wow, you all really think this is funny,’ I thought to myself. I just kept doing them. Even now, every single post I do is just me thinking, ‘Oh, they’re not going to like this one and it’ll be over,’ and no one taps out. They just keep demanding more. So, [this process] has just been really fun for me. There’s no pressure.

For myself and others who follow you, Oh Nah. hits that sweet spot of anime and Black illustration that appeals to us greatly. From Dragon Ball Z to other pop culture references you use, your comic is relatable and funny. What changes did you notice once you got into the rhythm of your postings that was different from B.R.U.H.?

Even when I did B.R.U.H., I have never had anything in my career that has been responded to consistently like Oh Nah. The way the people talk and engage in the comments section, it’s amazing! A friend of mine who is a dope artist that I’ve known for years made a good point to me, saying, ‘Bro, I don’t think you realize that your posts have been kind of educational. You’re opening people up to these dialogues through your comics that folx wouldn’t have been had in the Black community.’

I did one [post] about anal play with your girl, and it was really interesting. The thread in the comments section went on for a day and a half. There were people who were defensive and argued with each other, but there were a lot more people sharing educational things in the thread than just being negative. I didn’t realize that that had been happening in every post. When I do something about homosexuality, the comments would be just so interesting.

People would be having these discussions off of something that was supposed to be a joke and it’s the simplest thing I’ve ever drawn.

 

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Conversations need to be had in 2020...

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Delving into the anal play topic, in your comics I polled a question from my social friends group, and Tatiana [King] from For All Nerds wanted to know what inspired the change in direction with your art style?

Shout-out to Tatiana, man. That’s the homie right there. I really wanted to do something new. When I started back on Tumblr, I was by myself, but now there are a lot of my previous styles everywhere [online]. So, I felt like I didn’t stand out anymore, that I was just a part of the regular timeline, which was to be expected. I had impacted the game in at least enough ways where I felt there was enough version of me out there now, and I needed to do something different to have fun again. I wasn’t having fun, so I really wanted to just be free and Oh Nah. is very freeing for me.

Speaking of being free, you said in a past interview that a “Black woman  can be the most powerful character in her story without her being portrayed as out of the ordinary,” which isn’t something you hear Black men say publicly these days. What has been some of the feedback that you’ve received from Black women while doing these Oh Nah. episodes?

You said that you don’t hear a straight man rarely say these things, I have to be really honest, I wasn’t thinking about those things when I make this stuff. It’s because I’m very fortunate that a lot of my friends are Black women, so a lot of my art is already informed by them and their really positive feedback.

Most of the things that I draw are from their experiences. Even the ones that have to do with me, with a male character, are still influenced by Black women, which is why I think the response is what it is because they see it. I usually ask questions of Black women 90 percent of the time because there’s a lot of stuff I’m drawing that I don’t know about 100 percent, so I hit up my Black women friends.

I wouldn’t be here without them. My whole career is because of their support, and it’s all organic. It’s not something I’m forcing, I am just drawing [these episodes] from what I feel, so I think that’s why [Oh Nah.] is working the way it is.

 

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Bish you guessed it! Hit her so hard my animation glitched lmao

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Black women have been your inspiration throughout your career, so how do you feel about others in the animation-illustration game over-sexualizing them? How do you maintain such good taste with your work?

That’s a good question. I’m not better than any of those people; I just go to Black women about the process. I’ve listened to their feedback over the years. Black women are 60 percent of my audience online. They’re the ones who are messaging me, emailing me, and telling me, ‘Hey, we see this thing that you might like,’ or ‘Hey, we love this,’ and I think consulting with the muse makes me relatable.

I’m listening when they’re telling me something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much a believer of “let me do my art.” But when it comes to how Black women are being seen and represented, I am listening to them. If I am going to use them as the subject of my art, I should damn well be listening to them.

To go back to the anal play and same-sex situations you illustrate, you’ll also address those conversations in the comments directly. How do you balance the line between using art to entertain and using it to create these discussions about sex that are often overlooked?

If anyone knows about B.R.U.H., you’ve been at least aware of my work for a while. One thing I hope people realize is that when it comes to anything serious is that I only draw those things when I’m inspired, when I genuinely feel them. In drawing them when I am in the moment, I think that’s why [the comic] gets the responses they get. I don’t tackle a lot of same-sex issues in my comics because it is not my experience. Any of the ones that you’ve seen me do, I’ve asked one of my friends in the queer community like, ‘How do you feel about this?’ or ‘Would this make sense?’

Ignorance of any kind is infuriating and that particular issue had been bothering me, so that particular comic was more so to address the straight men who had issues with [same-sex or anal play]. There were also women who had an issue with it, but nine times out of 10, it’s men who still have to keep letting everybody know how insecure they are when nobody asks them anything. You could keep scrolling, man. It’s such a weird thing. If a straight man gets hit on in public, they get all, ‘Oh, man, I’m not gay. Don’t come at me!’ and I’m like why you gotta do all of that? If you’re secure with yourself, you don’t have to be tripping like that. You could just say thank you and move on, you know what I mean?

This issue is something I’m glad that I’m addressing and I hope that these conversations [via Oh Nah.] become more productive. It just makes them look a bit less confident in the long run.

 

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It’s ok guys. It’s really ok.

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Right, right. In that same 2015 interview, you also said that Black representation in the visual arts was “lagging.” Would you say that that has evolved since then?

I do feel like visual representation has evolved, but not necessarily as much as I feel it can because we’ve been doing it. I think more so than evolved it is just getting a larger light shined upon it, you feel me?!

I agree.

Oh Nah., in my opinion, shouldn’t be this big of a deal. It still feels like a “first,” if that makes any sense. I’m not the first one to talk about sex or even do Black art in this style, but in terms of the response, I feel like we’re hitting a lot of milestones [as a creative collective] that should have been hit a long time ago. And when I say visual representation, it still feels like a lot of things that are being spotlighted are being done as a favor for us. Like ‘Oh, we’ll let you have this one’ or ‘We’ll let you have two Black people on this show this time.’

We wouldn’t care [as much] if we had as many options as our white counterparts. They have a million things to watch, read, and experience, so it doesn’t bother them when there’s a sad movie out because they’ve seen several other positive stories out at the same time. They can pick from the litter. We deal with Queen & Slim for the next few months and then here comes Just Mercy and then we might get another next quarter. We have to hold on to whatever we get. I think when we get to a point where we have multiple things at one time, it’s not going to be a big deal.

Oh Nah. is very sex positive and it is one of the few places that I know in the Black space that really promotes this conversation in a kind and imaginative way. With that said, I wanted to know what your thoughts are about sex positivity in your work and in the visual arts world?

It is a matter of my experiences versus the way the media has given us our own experience. I joke a lot that white people have finessed us so well because they’ve taken things from us and they re-gifted them back to us [laughs]. It’s like they took a plate of food from us, ate most of it, and then they gave that same plate back to us with a little leftover. That’s how I feel like sex has been portrayed to us from a Black experience. If you look at most of the ways in major films or TV shows, Black sex has always had this stigma to it. It is always shown as this rough and aggressive, one dimensional view of sex and that’s not true of us.

Even in other factors, if it is a gay couple, they have this very stereotypical approach to it. They’ve got to be super-flamboyant or they have to be overly-exaggerated, which means we’re only getting a handful of the same looks. I’ve been fortunate thanks to traveling around the country that I’ve never seen one version of anything.

Right.

Gay wasn’t one way to me [and] by the time I was old enough to understand what was happening, I had met so many different people that I had learned that this wasn’t how everyone acted. That’s just what the TV or movies tried to show me as a kid. I think that’s why it is easier for me to draw these comics the way I do and talk about it in that way because sexuality is one of the only places where we’re not willing to acknowledge diversity.

I feel like that’s where we’re really hypocrites. We’ll talk about everybody being different: different cultures and religions, but when sexuality comes up that’s when people are like, ‘Oh, that’s wrong. You should only be like this.’ And that’s so backwards to me!

As I mentioned earlier, you drop references such as Dragon Ball Z and Naruto into your work, but those shows rarely — if at all — feature any Black characters. Some of my personal favorites like One Punch Man and Baki don’t do a bang-up job with the Black characters that currently exist in these shows. What would it take for a major creative shift to happen given how much Black people love and support anime, in your opinion?

Shout-out to LeSean Thomas, the creator of Cannon Busters, as this has been a discussion I’ve been having with friends my whole life. His contribution to the culture with that show is inspiring because it’s Japanese and there are rules to how they do their stuff. Not everyone can do it and they just don’t let anybody in. We deal with that sort of segregation in our own country — even now — with our own media, but [with anime] it is an even higher mountain to climb because we’re not really represented there.

 

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This was an alternate ending to a previous comic I didn’t like lol

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I think it’s interesting that with both of these white and Japanese animations, we spend so much money on them and then their response to that is acting like it is such a hassle to let us in the industry. It really would have to be an issue of pride for both the white and Japanese sides of the industry to let its guard down. What’s really the problem, you know? If they are going to take our money, at least stop drawing us with those big pink, donut-shaped lips. That’s the least you could do to start out.

Secondly, hire us for voice acting instead of a white person or someone who isn’t Black. We need baby steps in our direction, to be frank. From drawing our hair a little different to working on the texture to just giving a damn — these things could start the change [in the anime industry]. There are some anime examples where they’ve done us justice, but it’s very rare. So, I think they have to care first, which seems like a huge, huge, huge feat.

For those who have yet to get familiar with Oh Nah. and your style, how would you describe it to them in five words or less?

Five words or less? [Laughs] “Adult Calvin and Hobbes style.”

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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