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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.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted prior to the surfacing of sexual harassment accusations against Markus Prime.

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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.

A post shared by Markus Prime (@markus.effin.prime) on

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...

A post shared by Markus Prime (@markus.effin.prime) on

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

A post shared by Markus Prime (@markus.effin.prime) on

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.

A post shared by Markus Prime (@markus.effin.prime) on

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

A post shared by Markus Prime (@markus.effin.prime) on

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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(L-R) Flex Alexander and Shanice attend the Soul Train Weekend Kick-Off Party on November 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

Interview: Flex and Shanice Talk 'Virtual House Party,' Staying Together And That Call From Aretha Franklin

Shanice and Flex Alexander are ‘90s Black pop culture in the form of husband and wife. Shanice was an R&B ingenue with a hypnotic smile and powerful voice beyond her years when her sophomore album Inner Child propelled her to pop status thanks to the 1991 hit “I Love Your Smile.” Flex was a background dancer for acts like Sal-N-Pepa, before becoming a comedic actor and a mainstay on our TV sets during the golden era of Black TV in the ‘90s through early ‘00s.

After years of pulling in approximately $25K per week (according to Alexander) and not knowing how to properly manage the income, the couple lost their home, liquidated their assets, and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. They chronicled part of their journey with their reality show Flex and Shanice on OWN from 2014 to 2016 and are now positioning themselves for their respective next career chapters.

A big part of Flex’s next chapter was announced in July, when Netflix revealed they were bringing a slate of UPN shows from the early ‘00s arriving to the app this Fall. The line up includes Girlfriends, on which Flex originated the role of Darnell Wilkes; and One on One, which features Alexander as a single dad to teenage Kyla Pratt (and also features Shanice singing the theme song). Following the eagerly met premieres of classics Moesha, Girlfriends, and The Parkers, One on One and Half & Half (Essence Atkins and Rachel True) premiered on Thursday on the video streaming platform.

The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, talked to VIBE recently about adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic, growth as a married couple, and that time Aretha Franklin asked her to play a role in the upcoming Respect biopic.

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VIBE: How have you all been doing with everything that's going on?

Shanice: We're hanging in there. (Flex) doesn't like it when I say, "We're hanging in there."

Flex: We are doing exceptionally well. We are alive, we are healthy. Just dealing with it like everybody else, taking it one day at a time because you can't really plan too far ahead.

Did you ever think that we would be going through something like this?

Shanice: No, never. Flex said he kind of...Didn't you say over the years you thought...No. You said you read a lot of books and stuff.

Flex: Yeah. I do a lot of reading and stuff from my college days. Just stuff that talk about this stuff that's going on I like to get into. Everybody thinks it's conspiracy or whatever, but I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime. It is an adjustment for everyone. Like she said, we try to find the positive in it. We sit at the table, we eat dinner at the table, we can sit down. I say, "Baby, do you want to watch a movie?" We sit there and just hang out. Before, we were just crossing [paths where] everybody's hustling and grinding, hustling.

With the senseless police killings, racism seems to be at an all-time high. What type of conversations are you guys now having with (teenage children) Elijah and Imani now that they're older and this could happen to them or any other young adult? What are you telling them?

Flex: This is something I know I've been talking to Elijah about not just since this. When he was younger, just explaining him as a young Black kid, being a Black teenager turning into a young Black man, just the crosshairs that's on their back. You talk to them about if you're pulled over what to do, what not to do. We don't like to let him ride. He has friends that have cars and I'm like, "No, four or five of you all in the car? No. That's an open invitation." It hurts us because their regular daily livelihood has just changed. They would just walk down the street to the store. Now, we're like, "No."

Shanice: He [Elijah] has one friend that we allow him to be around. One of them wanted to play basketball and wanted me to drop them off at the park and I said no. There was a noose in our area.

Flex: Less than a mile from our house.

Shanice: Less than a mile from our house, there was a noose at the park. I sat in the car and I just watched him play. Normally, I would just drop him off and come back and pick him up, but I don't feel safe anymore.

Flex: And we have to have the conversation with Imani as well because it's not just relegated to just men and boys, women, too. We get ahead of the conversation, but they are very keen. Listen, information is traveling fast. They got these phones, they see stuff as well. A lot of the time, they tell us stuff and we're like, "What?" We just try to instill in them the best that we can and just pray over them.

 

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Throwback photo of @flexaforeal and I ♥️ We look like kids Flex lol

A post shared by shanice (@shaniceonline) on Sep 21, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

Shanice, nobody sounds like you. You were a young pop icon, not just as an R&B artist, but also in pop - and paved the way (for other young crossover singers). How does that feel today?

I just feel blessed to have longevity in this industry. I've had my ups and downs. You know how crazy this industry is and sometimes you get frustrated and it's like, "Why am I doing this? I want out. I don't want to do this anymore." But then, when I get online and I talk to the fans directly on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it keeps me going. I get emotional because I've had some great moments in the industry, but then I've had some very low moments and it gets frustrating sometimes. I love music. I love singing. It's in my blood. I've been singing since I was seven months. I do it because I love to sing and I love my fans. I have the best supporters out there.

You both are such a likable couple and people gravitate to you from all walks of life, from all nationalities. What is it about you two that they can identify with Flex and Shanice?

Flex: Just being us.

Shanice: I think we're just being ourselves.

Flex: We're just being ourselves. I'm on here deejaying on Instagram and she's here dropping it like it's hot. (Shanice laughs) That's what she does. We just try to be ourselves and we show a little bit of that doing the reality show and sharing what we went through because we wanted people to know what we went through and that you can come out of it. We just don't, I'm going to say a real old school word, we don't put on airs-

Shanice: Airs. (Laughs) That is real old school.

Flex: ... for anyone. We're in here every day. I want to throw it back to her real quick. I see the pain and stuff that she goes through the ups and downs and disappointments. Even through all this, you're still like, "Man, is it a place you want to reach?" She feels like, "I didn't get there." I said, "Listen, you've had more success than a lot of people and it may not have been here, but people love you." Whether they like to hear it or not, she's paved the way. There's no dig against anybody because a lot of them have said it. You paved the way for the Monicas, the Brandys. Beyonce even spoke to her and told her Solange sang your song (“I Love Your Smile”) at a talent show. I try to tell her just, "Hold on to that and just keep doing what you're doing," because you see where everything is going in the business, in the industry. And to have a good name and people that love you, I think, is a great thing. That brings longevity.

You guys have been staying creative. I see you’ve been doing virtual house parties. Who came up with that concept?

Flex: It came from me starting deejaying back in 2016. I was doing it once a week. Every Thursday I was doing, and she would be in the bed. When we got here, I started doing it again. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I just jumped on, and then she came over and then just started—

Shanice: I was like, I said, "Let me be your hype girl." (Laughs)

Flex: It worked. It's at a point now where if I get on it by myself, people are like, "Where's Shanice?"

Shanice: I like to drop it like it's hot. (Laughs) It’s fun.

Flex: It helps our mind because we didn't know what ...I'm talking about when it was like March when it was cold and rainy out there and all of this gloom and doom...we didn't know what was happening. The people that came in and people that were on our page, people said, "Yo, this helped me so much get through the night or helped me get through the week. Man, that meant more than anything." I didn't care if there were 10 people on there or 10 thousand. We just go on there. We shout everybody out.

 

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Thank you EVERYONE for rocking last night!!! We appreciate your undying support, to our day one #LockdownwithFlex family you already know!!! And my fellow New York brother @lilcease thanks for hanging last night we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane✊🏾✊🏾

A post shared by flexaforeal (@flexaforeal) on Jul 24, 2020 at 11:39am PDT

Flex, you’ve written and produced your own TV show, you’re a comedian....Are you working on any other current TV projects? Will we see you on a screen again soon?

Flex: Before I mention that, I'm excited about Netflix releasing One on One. It was through the Strong Black Lead who really pushed for us to be in more places and to have another life. This is crazy because two years ago, I wrote the reboot. I had it ready to go, and then that happened and I'm like, "Man, This is perfect."

Shanice: It's perfect timing.

Flex: This could lead right to it. I'm thankful for that. I just wanted to throw that out there. We have an animated series that we're working on now. We just got a showrunner attached and we're working on that. I have a drama that I've developed right before the COVID hit. We also worked with a Black-owned company called Ceek, where we do the Flex and Shanice Virtual House Party. They have great programs and they do live concerts. They've had Elton John, they've had Lady Gaga.

Shanice: Jennifer Lopez.

Flex: They have DL Hughley on there with Chris Spencer, [and] we're on there now. What they're trying to do is create this virtual experience [where] I come in, I deejay, [you] put your (VR headset) on and you're in the party. It’s great to partner with them and just continue to stay active and creative. It just keeps you going.

Shanice: And I've been doing live concerts in my living room.

Flex: Yeah. It's crazy because we've worked a lot.

Shanice: We've been doing so much in this living room. (Laughs) Like Flex said, we were working before the pandemic, we're working our butts off more now.

Tell us how you balance being in the entertainment business, being stars, having a family and being married. You're probably going to tell me love, but there has to be something else besides love that has kept you together. What do you think it is?

Flex: Honestly, praying is the first.

Shanice: Praying. Yes.

Flex: And communication. We can agree to be disagreeable.

Shanice: We've had our ups and downs. It's not like it's been all great, but we do love each other and we don't go to bed angry. We're mad at each other and we try to talk it out, and I just feel like you’ve got to try to make it exciting and you can't get too comfortable. People, after a while, they get bored in their relationship.

Flex: There are times that she ain't checking for me; she doesn't like me right now, so I'll come downstairs and she'll be up here. There's time's out like that. We go to different parts of the house and we figure it out.

Shanice: And we try to give each other a little space to breathe. We may come back to the situation and talk about it.

Flex: Every day you figure it out, you grow. I think I'm understanding who I am more now at 50 than I did at 30 or 35. I just love being here, being with my family, us having fun together, the kids. It's a beautiful thing, man. It's a beautiful thing.

Flex, what’s one thing that Shanice has taught you about being married? What have you learned from her?

Flex: Growth. I would say growth because if there's anybody that I've seen grow is her. If there's anybody I've seen with perseverance, it’s her. Her patience, her kindness, her. It has really taught me to listen more because as the man you're like, "I got it." She says, "Something ain't right," and I'm like, "I got it." Learning how to cut that off in my brain and go, "You know what? I need to listen. I need to listen to her. I need to hear her." I think that was probably one of my biggest hurdles is not that I didn't listen, but listen and go out, really listen and apply it. I've just seen so much from her in 20 years that I'm just like, "Wow, man. We've got 100 more to go." I just want to grow some more, and we’ve got more fun to have and love to have. We're done with the babies, though.

Shanice: Right. No more babies.

Flex: We're done with the babies.

Shanice: No more babies.

Flex: No more babies.

Shanice, what one thing Flex has taught you, or that you’ve learned by being married and connected to him for so long?

Shanice: I've learned that people over the years grow and they change, and sometimes you have to learn how to go with the change. I've learned to try to adjust to the change because we're not the same people we were 20 years ago.

Flex: Not in a bad way, though.

Shanice: Not in a bad way.

Shanice, you’re an international pop star. You started in pop and then crossed back to R&B, and can travel the world with just “I Love Your Smile.” That's big in itself, but can you share some of your greatest accomplishments? 

I think when I got nominated for a Grammy, that was like a big highlight for me because when I was a little kid I used to always look in the mirror and I used to practice my speech. I used to always dream about getting awards. I have several moments: the Grammys, (Aretha) Franklin, rest in peace—when she turned 50 the Queen of Soul reached out to me and flew me and my band and my dancers down to her house. I did a whole concert in her living room with a band and dancers and everything. That was so big for me.

Meeting Michael Jackson, singing on three of his records. I sang in the background for like three songs, and that was big for me. Just being able to travel all over the world. “I Love Your Smile” was No. 1 in..I believe it was 22 countries. I've traveled all over the world and I'm still traveling the world because of that song. “Saving Forever For You” was a big record for me as well with Diane Warren and David Foster. That went to No. 5. It didn't go No. 1, but it was almost number one. That was another big pop record for me. So you're right. I came out pop and then I crossed over to R&B.

I’ve got another Aretha story. I have to say this. I was having one of my moments when I was frustrated about the industry. I was home and I was crying and I said, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." I was feeling really low. I was like, "I'm done. I don't want to do this." And then, Flex came home and he was like, "Somebody reached out to me.” I think it was Aretha’s sister-in-law saw Flex and said Aretha wants to get in touch with Shanice. Here’s her cell number. So Flex comes home and says, "Miss Franklin wants to get in touch with you. This is her cell number." I'm like, "Me? Really?" I called her and we talked for like probably an hour. We talked for a long time, and she said, "I reached out to you because I want to tell you I know real talent when I hear it, and you got it." This is when I was feeling down. This was nothing but God telling me keep going.

So she said, "We had auditions. I'm doing a movie about my life, my life story." And she said, "Most likely Jennifer Hudson is going to play me, but I would love you to play my sister." I’m sitting on the phone like, "Yeah!" They'd been talking about this movie forever. Even when she was alive they were talking about the movie, and I said, "Anything you need. I would love to be a part [of it]." We talked several times over the years about the movie. Unfortunately, she passed. I think God wanted just to encourage me to keep going. I think that's why that happened. It was just to tell me to keep going. I just had to share that story.

Flex, what would you say to the younger Flex as he’s just starting out in the entertainment industry?

Take everything in more. Enjoy it. Don't fly through it so fast. Tell the people you love that you love them while you have them. I would have learned more about the business on the financial side to plan better. Those would probably be the things I would say, but I think overall, it would be to take it all in, sit back and take it in more. I think things happen so fast and it's like, I'm here, I'm there, I'm dancing, Salt-N-Pepa here, boom, traveling the world. And then, you think it's all going to keep going. You think it's all going to just last forever. And then, next thing you know, you look back and the time has passed and all you have is maybe a picture. I think that would be the thing I would tell myself.

Shanice, what would you tell up and coming talent that is trying to break into the entertainment business?

Shanice: I would tell them to definitely do it not for the money, do it for the love. The money and all that stuff will come. Believe in yourself. Back when I started, you had to get the approval of a huge record exec to put you out there. And now, because of the internet, you don't have to wait on somebody to tell you if you're good or not. You can put out your music on iTunes and get out there and create an audience online. I would say just don't give up on yourself, keep trying. It may not happen overnight. It might. There are people like Justin Bieber. He got on YouTube and he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Everybody's story is different, but you just have to keep trying and keep believing in yourself.

Flex: Yes.

Shanice: Just don't give up. You’ve got to keep going. Even when it seems like it's impossible, you just gotta keep going.

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Then & Now: Common Details How He And J Dilla Collaborated On The "Thelonious" Track With Slum Village

J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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