Friday, December 22, 2017

A Holiday Health Message Wrapped in Love

Combat Jack
Sadly, 2017 just couldn't leave us without hitting us with a blow this week in the form of another lost icon in Hip Hop--Combat Jack nee' Reggie Osse'. National Public Radio summed up Osse's contribution to Hip Hop as such: "The Combat Jack Show started on a lark — with a crazy crew of sidemen including Dallas Penn, Premium Pete, an occasional Just Blaze, DJ Benhameen and producer A-King — on its way to becoming a pioneering hip-hop podcast. The show scored some of the rarest and rawest hip-hop interviews of an era when rap's center of gravity started its move toward the Internet. Ossé was able to get gems out of otherwise reserved or reclusive rappers by employing a type of interview style many emulate today. From Scarface playing guitar live and proclaiming his love for Pink Floyd to Prodigy detailing his own childhood kidnapping to J. Cole telling the story of how he wanted to sign Kendrick Lamar, listeners knew they would always get something special out of a Combat Jack interview."

Phife Dawg
On Wednesday, Osse lost his battle to aggressive colon cancer at age 53. My first thought was of course shock; but my second thought was "we gotta be more proactive with our health." I don't profess to know the details of Osse's diagnosis and subsequent treatment; however, according to the American Cancer Society, colon and rectal cancer is one of the slower progressing cancers, at times taking up to as long as 17 years before becoming life-threatening. If caught in time during a routine checkup, it's a cancer that can be treated and beaten. And that's when my third thought became one of sadness, because Osse is not alone. Hip Hop icons withstanding, each year, we lose loved ones to a myriad of treatable and reversible diseases, from complications of high blood pressure (shout out to Heavy D) to diabetes (shout out to Phife Dawg) to sickle cell (shout out to Prodigy) and of course, to cancer. Even more alarming, we lose many of our black men at a higher rate to these illnesses because, without prodding from loved ones, check ups often range from rare to, in many cases, nonexistent.

Ironically, I grew up with a father who was almost fanatic about his health. I recall my parents having a wall calendar in the kitchen noted with various annual checkups, follow-ups, lab work, and X-ray appointments. And they'd have no problem reminding each other of said dates on a regular basis. In fact, my dad was so proactive, if he had so much as a pain in his toe, off he'd go to the hospital. Therefore, I was taught the importance of managing my health very early, solidified by the fact that my father remains in good physical shape despite his 87 years. I've also been fearfully reminded of the importance of  managing my health with my own mother's passing who, on ONE rare occasion, did miss making an annual appointment that would ultimately cost her her life. Now this is not to say that both of my parents were illness-free throughout their lives, but they were fearlessly proactive to ensure they remained with their loved ones as long as they could and, in turn, set an example for their children to follow, demonstrating that striving for optimal health is just as important--if not more--than any other life goal.

Now, I would be remiss in not saying healthcare under our current Administration is under fire and could in fact become unaffordable for many in the foreseeable future. However, what just as commonly leads to illness and often untimely deaths, is a simple fear--whether that ranges from a fear of needles to a fear of hearing "bad news." But what is much scarier is not being here for those who need us the most, especially if we have the power to do something about it. Therefore, we must make sure we're all living our best lives and that we're also accountable for those who may need to be encouraged to do the same--be it reminding our sistas to get the "tatas" checked; reminding our brothas to show their prostate health some love; or simply not skipping bi-annual dental cleanings that are often free with many of our health plans (as irregular dental hygiene has been directly linked to heart disease).

As is said, "We're only as strong as each of us united." Therefore, we must all do our part to stay as vigilant as possible about our health not only for ourselves but for our entire community, even if that means offering to accompany each other to appointments when support is needed. So, ladies, while you're washing the greens and stuffing the turkey this weekend, start the conversation with your nieces and aunts about breast health care. Fellas, while you're slammin' down dominoes, use Jack and Phife and Heavy as conversation starters with your cousins to discuss cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Let's have the talks; let's make the commitments; let's hold each other accountable; and let's resolve to being our healthiest selves. Our lives depend on it.

Wishing everyone much peace, love, joy, and wellness this holiday season! Be blessed.

Photo Credits: N/A

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Managing Our Pain: A Thanksgiving Message

A year ago as of this month, I worked up the courage to have a medical procedure to improve my quality of life. Having consulted with several doctors as well as a few friends who had made the same decision to do so and with successful outcomes, I decided to go for it. Priding myself on being a pretty good planner, I scheduled my appointment, arranged for post-surgery home care (in the form of my oldest sister), and made sure she wouldn't starve while I recovered by buying tons of ready-to-prepare meals. In fact, I was so confident everything would go as planned, I put a pot roast in the slow cooker at the crack of dawn the morning of surgery, confident I'd be back home by 2 p.m. to turn it off. After all, this was considered in-and-out surgery.

So, hours before the sun would rise, off we headed to the hospital. Scheduled as the first surgery of the day, you could hear a pin drop in a lobby where only one other family sat in addition to my sister and I. Naturally, I was a little fearful, but confident for a successful outcome. After two hours of pre-op procedures--and a doctor who was late thanks to that good ol' DMV traffic--I was finally under and whisked away. In what seemed like a flash (but was really four hours later), I groggily awoke in recovery to the doctor, nurses, and my sister standing around my bed with news: the surgery had ultimately gone well, but I had lost way too much blood in the process and not only would I need one blood transfusion, I'd need at least two. In other words, guess who wasn't going home that day? (On a lighter note, my sister did not forget about the pot roast and had to dash home to turn off the slow cooker, as not to burn down my house. And, yes, it was tasty when we finally got to eat it.)

Recovery began, the transfusion processes commenced, and all seemed to be going well. But on the eve of the second night, I found myself in the worst pain I have ever experienced; the kind of pain where there is nothing you can do to find relief. I was up; I was down; I forced myself out of the bed; and, at one point, was actually on the floor kneeling beside it. I was a wreck, and there was seemingly nothing more that could be done. You see, the nurse had already come in earlier and asked me what my pain level was. He showed me a pain scale chart with six faces of expressions indicating comfort level, and I was to choose one. Although I was already in a fair amount of pain, I selected the face with a tiny smirk, giving the indication that I was better than I actually was. However, as the nurse would quickly surmise and state, "Ms. Kennedy, you far underestimated your pain." In other words, my not being completely honest about the state I was in, directly affected the care I was given. Luckily, the nurse was able to up my pain medicine dosage, and off to sleep I went.

A year later, fully recovered, and grateful for a quality of life that has definitely improved, I am reminded of the experience, and a greater lesson and question that came out of the ordeal: how are we managing our pain? Not necessarily physically, but our mental and emotional pain. Are we suppressing our feelings? Masking our hurt with "hobbies" that are not serving us well? Constantly putting on the "happy face" to make others comfortable, when inside we're crying out for help? Or, even worse, dismissing depression as just "the blues"? In reflecting on the tragedies that are plaguing our society in the form of mass shootings and rising suicide rates, especially among teenagers, it is safe to say that many of us are "drowning" in the silence of our own pain--a pain that often goes unrecognized by most until it's too late.

On this Thanksgiving week, however, I am grateful not only for those whose job it is to help the hurting but also for loved ones who care enough to know when something is wrong even when we passively say, "I'm fine." May we also have the courage to be more honest in asking for what we need when we're simply "not okay," in addition to being more mindful and perceptive of those around us without a "village" supporting them who, in small ways, may be silently crying out for a kind word, a hug, or some positive inspiration they may need to push through one more day. The "pain killers" we employ and masks we wear may work for a little while, but will never replace a healthy, steady dose of love, support, self-care and, at times, even medication, whether for the body or for the mind. Always remember, we are our brother's AND sister's keeper. May you have a happy Thanksgiving, and be a blessing to someone else in need as well.

Click here for emotional support resources. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Marshall: Howard U. Brilliance on the Big Screen

After a Howard University homecoming weekend celebrating 150 years of excellence, I could not think of a better way to conclude festivities than by supporting the cinematic release of "Marshall" and the two Howard alumni who bring the biopic to life: former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (the film's subject) and Chadwick Boseman (the film's lead actor).

Directed by writer and producer Reginald Hudlin ("Boomerang", "House Party", "Django Unchained") and also starring Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, and Sterling K. Brown, the film follows Marshall before he donned the Supreme Court Justice robe but was instead a young NAACP attorney traveling throughout the United States representing innocent men and women of color accused of crimes because of their race, while he was also striving to increase the exposure of the organization. The film, set in the 1940s, depicts the real-life case of wealthy white Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing, who accuses her black chauffeur Joseph Spell of sexual assault and attempted murder. When Marshall is denied a "voice" in the courtroom, he teams up with Sam Friedman, a local Jewish insurance lawyer who's never handled a criminal case, to work together to build a defense to save Spell's life.

Thurgood Marshall in 1936
Although Thurgood Marshall's historic acclaims have always been his successfully arguing the Brown v. Board of Education case that would end segregation in schools and, subsequently, his appointment as the first black Supreme Court Justice, Boseman fiercely portrays Marshall as a man who embodied confidence, courage and, dare I say, swagger, long before the world knew who he was. However, what makes "Marshall" a standout film, is the portrayal of Thurgood's life outside of the courtroom--a husband struggling with fighting for justice while being away from his wife when she needs him most; a verbal sharp-shooter who can deliver a quip or comeback to anyone regardless of race; a rebel who would not only use his Howard law degree to help others but who would use it to sue the University of Maryland law school, who denied him admittance because of its segregation policy; and a young socialite in his own right, who enjoyed a good bourbon and laughs with friends, whose names hold solid places in history as well but, to him, were simply his fellow alumni cohorts. In fact, one scene in particular mirrors the banter you can find at any HBCU soiree today, which will hold a sweet spot for any alums who see the film.

However, many of the film's poignant moments are those delivered as simple one-liners that punch you in the gut because of their continued relevance today regarding African-Americans and the criminal justice system: "If you want freedom, you're going to have to fight for it...the Constitution does not apply to us...don't take a plea if you're not guilty...can the cops even be trusted?" As I discussed in a previous blog post after viewing the film, "Detroit," many of our biopics remind us that although we've come a long way as a people, we still have far to go. And a heart-wrenching cameo in the closing scene makes this argument all too real. Yet, "Marshall" shows that even when those challenges are present, it should not deter us from the fight; it should only fuel it. As Boseman states in the movie, “We aren’t slaves, because we rose up and fought and fought and fought...and the only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” So, for those like Thurgood Marshall who continue to break down barriers as they fight for our freedom and for those like Boseman who are committed to telling the stories of our past, black America salutes you, Howard U. salutes you, and may we all continue to press on toward the mark in "veritas et utilitas," while standing on your shoulders. 

Photo Credits: N/A

Official "Marshall" Trailer

Friday, October 6, 2017

Blessed are Those Who Ask the Question

On what would have been my mother's 84th birthday a week ago today, it was heartwarming to reflect on the wonderful woman and mother she was, and also to ruminate on the many life lessons she taught me along the way. Often delivered as clever, matter-of-fact one liners, you could always expect her to bless you with gems of wisdom that made you laugh but also made you think. As I grew older and began to chase my own dreams, one piece of advice from her that I held close to my heart when oppositions arose was "Just ask for what you want. All that can be said is 'yes' or 'no'."

Now I admit that when I was was younger, I didn't always heed that advice and, in fact, found it quite annoying. After all, who ever wants to feel the disappointment of possibly being denied a request? But, in time, I not only came to realize how much wisdom resided in her words but also how much power lies in having the courage to ask for what you want and in being prepared to accept whatever that response brings.

Writer James Baldwin once said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And whatever that change is that's needed usually begins with a simple question, whether it's as rudimentary as asking for a raise at work or something more meaningful as asking for someone's hand in marriage or something more powerful as asking for your basic human rights to be respected. However, what often prevents us from asking for what we desire is rooted in the fear that our vulnerability will not allow us to handle receiving that dreadful "no" or is rooted in the angst that we may not be prepared to step up to the next level required if a "yes" is given. And so we end up existing in that space called, "I Wonder If...." However, as is often said, "If God brings you to it, He'll bring you through it," in addition to believing enough in divine order to know that a "no" can be just as huge of a blessing as a resounding "yes," for that's often God's gentle way of saying, "Not that way; but this way."

In also reflecting on the current unrest in the world from challenging the "promises" of our National Anthem to demanding police accountability to fighting against proposed policies that threaten justice and liberty for all, the first step toward change all begins with the courage to ask for what is needed. And, if the answer is "no," finding gratitude in the opportunity to strategically plan a course of action that will lead to the next great movement. Just as every paramount moment in life begins with a simple act; every great act begins with a single question, and it's often, "How can this/I/we be better?"

Thankfully, as I continue to grow, I am developing greater courage to put my mother's words into action even more, which has led to new opportunities that continue to sharpen me. Therefore, as we near the ending of 2017 and prepare for what I pray is an even more blessed and bountiful 2018 for us all, may we develop or continue to build the courage we need to ask the questions that will lead to us living our best lives yet. Thanks Mama.

Photo Credits: N/A

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Over the Moon, Child

With a week until summer is behind us, I grow nostalgic about my favorite month of the season: June. Not only does it represent Black Music Month, but also the annual Capital Jazz Fest held at Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, Maryland. In addition to the beautiful weather, dope people, and lineup of award-winning artists surrounded by lush green trees and countless vendors selling items for and about Black people, the Capital Jazz Fest is a time to reconnect with "music heads" and do what we do best--eat, drink, laugh, and "put each other on" to artists we've discovered. This year's 25th annual festival was no exception, as I have a friend to thank for turning me on to what would become my "soundtrack of the summer": Moonchild's Voyager. And so I pass the musical blessing on to you....

First, let's get two fun facts out of the way: 1) I all but overdosed on Voyager's Change Your Mind and The List tracks, and 2) Moonchild is of the "blue eyed soul" variety. However, in addition to the latter, they are also sexy, sassy, and intentional in their lyrics and music. A recent LA Weekly article proclaimed that everyone including Jill Scott, 9th Wonder (with whom they've worked closely), Robert Glasper, Stevie Wonder, The Internet, and Tyler the Creator are fans of the neo-Soul trio. Having met in the University of Southern California's jazz performance program, Max Bryk, Andris Mattson, and lead vocalist Amber Navran toured together as a horn/woodwind trio, with Navran on saxophone, Mattson on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Bryk on sax, flute, and clarinet. As Narvan recalled, “We rode in the car together and realized that we had the same music taste. When we were on that tour, we tried writing a song together and it was really easy, so we decided to come together as a group. It wasn’t that calculated really. We were doing well so we kept going.” (Source: LA Weekly, June 20, 2017)

Photo credit: Meeno
In fact, lead singer Narvan does vocals "so well," you'd be hard-pressed not to compare her to Jill Scott or, perhaps more accurately, Scott's neo-Soul predecessor, Erykah Badu. Although the 14-track Voyager is the L.A. group's third album following their 2012 debut, Be Free, and sophomore album, Please Rewind, which they described as "electronic Dilla soul," for many--like myself--Moonchild is still both new and, yet, right on time. The only thing that's going to be better than keeping this trio in my musical rotation is finally seeing them live, which I'm already making plans to soon do. So, while there are still a few warm weather days left, cop Voyager, put the windows down on your ride, place it in cruise control, lay back, and go on a journey with Moonchild.

Additional photo credits: N/A

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Segregated Sympathy

A few weeks ago while on travel, I decided to break up my busy day with a trip to the movies. I'm a regular moviegoer, but there's always something electrifying about taking in a flick away from home. It's like a further escape from your escape. My movie of choice: Detroit. Now, I will say, as much as I champion black cinema, I had no intention of seeing the much-anticipated film. After reading reviews and watching interviews, I just didn't think I could stomach seeing on screen what is continuing to be experienced by many young African-American men on a daily basis. But I dared myself to proceed and managed to make it through its 143-minute running time stoically, sans the few times I winced and shook my head during a few nerve-wracking moments. As the credits rolled, a few sat in reflection, while others attempted to collect themselves between sniffles. I, however, felt numb--until I exited the theater and, without any physical cues, the tears began to fall. It was like an unexpected punch in the gut. I surprised even myself and had no idea where the emotion had welled up from, having known the the history of the 1967 Detroit riot and being fully aware of what to expect on screen. But then I realized what was behind my tears: the realization that although some things have changed, so much has not.

1967 Detroit riots
The images of a re-created, litter-lined Detroit street, of cops brutalizing young black men and women, of Armed forces patrolling the streets in riot gear, of the pain, tears, and fear that paralyzed its citizens looked identical to the streets of Ferguson after the death of Mike Brown; to the streets of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray; to the streets of Beavercreek after the death of John Crawford, and of so many cities across the United States after tragic injustices have been committed. Then enters Charlottesville. 

2015 Baltimore riots
I must admit, although sad, nothing about this past weekend was surprising to me, especially when the Free World is being led by a man whose very election platform was laced with racist rhetoric, lies, and unsubstantiated "facts." Honestly, I was more perplexed at those who were shocked he didn't take a stronger stance in denouncing the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who descended on the Virginia town to protest the pending removal of a statue of the Confederate's top leader--General Robert E. Lee. In fact, waiting for sincere outrage from Trump on this matter was akin to waiting for an atheist to deliver the Thanksgiving grace. Like really? However, what his lack of empathy could not distract from was the sad reality that three lives were lost--one directly, two indirectly--and the world was both outraged and saddened. Talking heads shared their remorse, late night talk show hosts offered monologues asking that Heather Heyer's death not be in vain, and people everywhere were saying it's time things change. And then I was forced to ponder a deeper question: Where in the hell have some of these people been? 

Heather Heyer
There's no doubt that young Heather is indeed a martyr for the cause; she was protesting on the side of "right" as opposed to the Alt-Right, and had lived a brief life championing the cause for equality. However, from 1619 Jamestown to 1967 Detroit to now, African-Americans have been fighting, bleeding, and dying for this same equality; screaming in what feels like a silo, only to have it often fall on deaf ears and for the order of most American's days to continue on unbothered. Not saying that African-Americans have stood alone in their fight, but the latest outrage from those who usually remain silent makes me believe that even in mourning, there's segregation. 

Dre Harris
In solidarity of Saturday's tragic events, I was compelled to make a donation to the Go Fund Me campaign of Dre Harris, the young man who was captured on video being beaten with poles by white supremacists in a parking garage near the Charlottesville protest. His campaign was created to ask for assistance with medical bills, after having suffered a concussion, lacerations, broken wrist, broken teeth, and more. As of today, he has far exceeded his donation goal, which is a blessing since several contributors who worked in the medical field stated he was far underestimating what his costs would be, considering his injuries. But it didn't take long for the supportive words lining his campaign to be overshadowed by "jokingly" asking if he was really going to use the money for bills or would it be primarily used to buy weed. Two protesters fighting for justice; two victims in spite of their different endings. However, something tells me if Heather had been lucky enough to walk away from the tragedy with only injuries and was requesting assistance with medical bills, the outpouring of support would have been void of the sarcasm Dre received. For it seems even when we're victims, we're victims. And therein lies one of the biggest problems. 

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA
There's no doubt this country must do better with facing its ugly past and working toward a better future, and whatever it takes to "awaken" people--even tragedy--is never in vain. However, before white America considers the biggest enemy to be those across the protest line wearing Swastikas, wielding sticks and chains, and yelling racial slurs, it must consider its own ways it has contributed to this country's lack of progress in race relations, whether that's turning a blind eye to those protesters who stay on the front lines in the fight for equality, because they don't look like them, or in ignoring causes they feel don't speak to their "needs," or simply in the sarcastic humor offered in the face of tragedy. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We may be on the same side of the protest line some of the time, but nothing will change if we're not of the same mindset all of the time. 

Photo Credits: N/A

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Fallen Monument Remembered

If you are a native Washingtonian of a certain age, there is no arguing that there were three men who were the living embodiment of "D.C. monuments": Mayor Marion Barry, Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown, and long-time TV news veteran and lead anchorman, Jim Vance, whom we lost yesterday at the age of 75. Known as much for his swag and humor as his hard-nosed news telling style, Vance came into our homes each night to inform, enlighten and, often, unknowingly entertain.

Never too cool to not enjoy a hearty laugh with his fellow news desk anchors, and never to laid back to not get in your face with "the real," Vance often used his own life struggles as a cautionary tale and, yet, a way to inspire. Having battled drug addiction, depression, attempted suicide, several failed marriages, and a two-time bout with cancer, Vance kept going strong and was a constant reminder to his viewing audience that you can always begin again if you got just a little fight left in you to do so.That tenacity did not go unnoticed or unappreciated, as just last month, in addition to 17 local Emmy awards, Vance was bestowed with one of D.C.'s most anticipated honors: being immortalized in living color on the side of the famous Ben's Chili Bowl wall as one of its mural honorees--an honor that was not only timely but also befitting for someone who loved D.C. as much as D.C. loved him.

There's so much that can be said about Vance, from his early beginnings and his years as a Philadelphia school teacher before coming to Washington as a reporter and eventually becoming one of the few lead anchors of color on a major news network--a position he held for more than 45 years, making him the region’s longest-serving television news anchor (click here for in-depth coverage of Vance's life and career). Yet I'll simply say, another shining light has dimmed. Vance left footprints that can not be erased and a legacy that can not be denied, and reminded us all that not only is staying on top of news cool but you can look cool delivering it. As longtime radio personality Donnie Simpson said, "Jim was our Frank Sinatra." And he most certainly did it his way.

D.C. will miss you, Jim, and I know I personally will whenever I hear "My Mood" by M.F.S.B.--the song Vance personally selected in 1975 to close out WRC-TV's nightly newscast on Friday evenings, which still plays today. Vance indeed set the mood and standard for how news should be delivered and we were all made wiser because of it. So, job well done, Jim. You can officially sign off now...and rest in peace.

Photo Credits: N/A

Friday, June 30, 2017

The 411 on 4:44

4:44 exclusively on Tidal
This will probably be one of the shortest reviews I'll ever write because I have so much to say about Jay-Z's latest offering, "4:44," after his four-year solo absence from our "ear-rea," that I'm honestly speechless, and have instead been reduced to .gif worthy facial expressions, ranging from surprise to pensiveness to devilish glee. Now, I'll be completely honest and say I haven't been a die-hard fan of Jay's for a while now (read: at least a decade), while remaining a pretty steadfast fan of his producers (if you really know me, that makes perfect sense). But last night, when the album exclusively dropped on Tidal, the stars aligned and gave us 10-solid No I.D.-produced tracks, revealing a more introspective, grown up and, sometimes remorseful, Shawn, gifting us with, as one tweeter wrote, "that 'i got shit to say; i ain't really come to play'" type fiyah. (And shout out to a good friend for adding me to their Tidal account recently, which obviously proved more on time than I could have predicted).

Although Mr. Carter has always kept it "real" about who he was, is, and is always striving to be, it would be accurate to say that as the commas in his bank account grew over the years, so did the divide in his relation to some of his fans. At times, it felt like he was no longer "one of us," but now a high-perched observer instead, creating what often felt like a unreachable pillar from which he sat, challenging everyone to (impossibly) de-throne him and, at the same time, try and understand him. Now, don't get me wrong, Jay is still doing much of the same, but let's just say he's climbed down long enough to let folks know, "I got it all...but I got every day problems too," which feels raw, honest, and needed at a time when much of nothing feels "real" from hung juries to diabolical Administrations.

Producer No I.D.
Over hundreds of bars exploring fame, poverty, gentrification, colorism, same-sex love, financial literacy, family, marriage, infidelity, and all of the highs and lows associated with each, Jiggaman is purging while, as the young folks say, "snatchin' wigs in the process." Nobody is spared from "analysis" (read: criticism) on this album--Kanye, Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, OJ, Eric Benet, even Jay's own mama, which means one of two things: that he is so solid in his life right now, he could care less about having any friends at all or that at 47 he simply has no time to waste in not keeping it real with anyone about any and everything--including himself. I'll go with the latter, and echo the words of comedian Chris Rock exclaiming, "I ain't saying it's right....but I understand." God bless everyone in the rap game right now and those trying to get in it, for Hov has added yet another tier to his already high pillar, while raining and reigning down on everyone in the process.

So take heart while bumpin' it at your work desk, in your car, rockin' to it at listening parties or cookouts this weekend, and relish in a bit of that ol' Jigga we all knew and loved...and are loving again. Perhaps I had more than a little to say after all...

Hitting the replay button like:

Identity meme memes awkward bye GIF

Photo Credits: N/A

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ABFF: A Week of Love, Peace, and Cinematic Soul

Photo credit N/A
For years I've talked about the American Black Film Festival. I've turned friends on to it, mentioned it in blogs, and celebrated its accomplishments on social media. However, due to a myriad of reasons from timing to work obligations, what I'd never done was experienced it for myself. That is, until last week, when I made my first sojourn to the 5-day festival and returned renewed, inspired, and invigorated.

Screening of TV One's "When Love Kills" along with cast
Created by entertainment executive Jeff Friday and celebrating its 21st year in existence, the ABFF has traveled from the shores of Acapulco to the brights lights of Los Angeles to the streets of New York City to the beaches of Miami, with one goal in mind: to celebrate and promote black talent both in front of and behind the camera. Set to the backdrop of abundant sunshine and swaying palm trees, there were panels and screenings; workshops and competitions; writers and actors; producers, directors, celebrities, and up-and-comers. There were classes by day and yacht club parties by night. There were casual poolside chats and impromptu hotel lobby business meetings.  And at the center of it all, there was love: love for our people, our art, and our ingenuity.

Opening night movie screening of "Girls Trip"
Although it didn't take me long to be "happily overwhelmed" with things to both do and see (for example, even with a well outlined program booklet, I actually showed up one day early to an independent film screening I wanted to see. Sigh.), the connections made were equally as fulfilling. I chatted on opening night with a film veteran whose stories of working closely with the legendary Redd Foxx could have made for a movie itself; had breakfast with a writer who was working on a pilot for an inspirational TV talk show; and had lunch with an entertainment attorney, who shared her journey of leaving behind corporate America to start her own legal firm, which assists minorities with managing their projects.

I walked to a morning class with an events planner pursuing TV script writing; waited in a screening line with an independent film company owner; and chatted numerous times with a young aspiring actor from Queens, New York, who boldly proclaimed he would return to the festival next year, not as an attendee, but as a performer instead. I say, name it and claim it!

The historic Colony Theatre
And don't get me started on the Howard University connections that were made. Let's just say us Bison were definitely here, there, and everywhere, which is not surprising, considering Mr. Friday is, himself, a Howard alum. I can't count the times I either proclaimed or responded to the classic "HU...You know" call, which even actor Lance Gross replied to, as we hurriedly passed each other in the lobby. But most appreciated was the TV executive who took a few moments out of her busy morning to briefly chat with me and, astoundingly, follow-up with our conversation by e-mail only minutes later: an interaction I found to be both surprising and inspiring, at a time when sparing a minute can be impossible for us everyday folk, not to mention the "movers and shakers." So, to say it was a week of "black people magic" would be nothing short of an understatement.

With Erica Ash (Survivor's Remorse) and Jay Ellis (Insecure)
For those of us who consider ourselves "creative minds," the struggle to make connections and take art to the next level can, as is said, "be real." Not to mention it can also be daunting, frustrating, and more than a little disappointing at times. But when you're surrounded by others who share your same dreams (and fears), what you find feels like more than just a connection; it feels like family. They understand the ups and downs; the hustle and the bustle. And from the hugs, high fives, and fist bumps that strangers-turned-friends gave each other in passing within only a few days of meeting, it was all the proof needed that the dream Jeff Friday created 21 years ago is still being fulfilled today.

With actor Boris Kodjoe
The ABFF serves as a reminder that we all have the power to make our dreams come true and as was once said, that when "Hollywouldn't" we have people to support us who will. This may have been my first time at the festival, but it certainly won't be my last. And one year, when I do return, I hope-- as that young Queens native said--it won't be as an audience member but as a featured artist instead. From my lips to God's ears.

Check out these notable premieres coming soon:

Tales created by Irv Gotti - BET - June 27th

Insecure (season 2 premiere) starring Issa Rae and Jay Ellis - HBO - July 23rd

When Love Kills: The Falicia Blakely Story starring Lance Gross and Lil' Mama - TV One - September 4th

Downsized starring Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker - TV One - Fall 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Black Music Month Head Nod to Hip Hop

Music. If there has been one constant in my life, my love for it has definitely been it. From a singing mother, to siblings who played instruments ranging from the flute to guitar (and yours truly playing piano), to the numerous concert ticket stubs I've collected since age 9, every good, bad, and sad moment has always had a "sound" to support it. Without a doubt, music has always been the heartbeat of my emotions, whether delivered through r&b, gospel, go-go, jazz--or even a country tune here and there. And then there's that thing called hip hop....

The Pharcyde
On a recent morning commute, 93.9 WKYS' DJ Quicksilva posed the age old question--most notably asked in the 2002 urban cult classic "Brown Sugar"--"When did you fall in love with hip hop?" I smiled as caller after caller dialed into the station to enthusiastically give their answer. What was even more notable were the variation of answers that were indicative of just how long hip hop has been in the game: "Krush Groovin' was my jam" said one caller, noting that she was indeed an "old head"; "Run-DMC's 'Sucker MC's still gives him the chills" said another. "Pharcyde's 'Passin' Me By' was my joint" the next caller exclaimed, which indeed gave me all the "feels," as it marked my college years, when hip hop seemed at its most palpable. There were shout outs to "All About the Benjamins" by Puff Daddy & the Family and "Renee" by Lost Boyz. And then there were the younger callers giving a nod to Lil' Bow Wow.

The conversation definitely made morning rush hour less annoying, as I was too gone down Memory Lane to care about bumper to bumper traffic. But then I was struck with a nagging realization: I am never able to definitively answer that question for myself. Sure, there are songs that stick out in my head for various reasons, like "Faye" by Stetasonic, whose (then considered) lewd lyrics on the track and its late-night-only radio play that made us curious teenagers gravitate toward it, and Salt-N-Pepa's "My Mic Sounds Nice" because that mashup of hip hop and go-go was--and still is--rare (and you don't even want to get me started on my love for go-go, being a native Washingtonian. In fact, much respect to SNP for keeping that "marriage" going with this classic).

However, about half way down the highway, it struck me why answering that question has always proved difficult for me: Because asking me "when did I fall in love with hip hop" is akin to asking me "when did I fall in love with my family." It's impossible to answer, as family is something that's just a part of us; we come into it and the love for it is just there.

There's no defining moment or anything spectacular someone did that brings you to it. There's no exact moment when you decide to open your heart to it. You just love it and it loves you back. Yes, there may be special moments that make you appreciate its existence, but they are a part of the fabric that makes you, you--and for most of us, so is hip hop. And being a '73 baby born just around the time the genre made its debut, let's just say hip hop and I grew up and evolved together from rambunctious kid, to explorative teen, to conscious adult. 

Whether it was there as you navigated your first dance (shout out to Doug E. Fresh's "The Show" and Michele's 12th birthday basement party) or when you got your first pair of Bamboo earrings (shout out to LL Cool J's "Around the Way Girl") to when you had your first crush (shout out to Heavy D's "Don't You Know") to when you had your first "real" heartbreak (shout out to Common's "Retrospect for Life") to when you realized some ish needed to change (shout out to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power") to so many other landmark moments, hip hop has no doubt always been there--just like family.

Me groovin' to hip hop in Barcelona
So I no longer feel odd not having an answer to that quintessential question, for it doesn't require one. Instead, and in celebration of June being Black Music Month, I rather just say "thank you" to hip hop. Thank you for always being that "ride or die" when I needed you; thank you for always providing that drive in my spirit to take on whatever challenge I faced; and thank you for being that joy that could make me throw my hands in the air, close my eyes, and shout out "Yassssssssssssssssss!" with the drop of one beat. Hip hop, you are appreciated and will forever be kin. 

Photo Credits: N/A

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Somber Case for HBCUs

Richard Collins III
My heart has been heavy the past few days, due to the murder of Bowie State University student, Richard Collins III--a promising 23-year-old who was set to receive his diploma today on the very site he was slain: the University of Maryland campus, where Bowie holds its commencement exercises. Collins, described as a young man who made friends easily and often went out of his way to help others, recently completed Bowie's rigorous Reserve Officers' Training Corps regimen and had already been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. On the early morning hours of Saturday, May 20th, Collins, who was waiting with friends for an Uber after a night of celebrating his impending graduation, was randomly approached and stabbed to death by a 22-year-old white University of Maryland student. Because of the student's involvement in an online Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation," which features bigoted posts, the murder is now being investigated as a hate crime.

It would not be long before several University of Maryland Terrapin students would hijack the school's popular "Fear the Turtle" slogan and turn it into a hashtag to share their own encounters of racism on UMD's campus:

"when a group of my friends were told "our kind" was not wanted at a party my freshman year"

"being the only black man on the floor of my freshman dorm gave a coward the courage to call me the n word through the walls"

"when a UMPD officer whispered in my AfAm student's ear: "I could f*ckin' ruin your life right now if I wanted to."

"when the bus driver told black students the bus was full but let white students get on right after"

"I turned down a full ride to Howard & Hampton to be disrespected and unprotected at UMD. If I knew what I know now.."

What we do know is that racist expressions in this country--this world, in fact--are nothing knew and certainly not unheard of on college campuses, particularly at PWIs--predominately white institutions. In fact, a few friends of mine who attended PWIs would share similar stories with me regularly when we reconnected over Spring break. That was over 20 years ago and, as recent as last year, my nephew shared those same experiences with me that he'd encountered at a well respected  PWI in New York City. However, when those derogatory racial expressions manifest into actions that lead to deaths, the hard, uncomfortable conversations must be had. Unfortunately, according to several UMD students, its administrators don't seem ready--or willing--to do that. Whether that's true or will change soon, remains to be seen.

However, this senseless incident motivated me to have my own "water cooler" conversation at work with a fellow co-worker, who happened to be both African-American and a UMD graduate. Sparing the details of the conversation, I'll just say in the end their Terrapin pride would not fully allow them to criticize the lack of action from this institution on whose ground this hideous crime occurred. I didn't relent in my argument, but I also understood their struggle to fully support mine. As a proud Howard University graduate, anyone who knows me will tell you, I can talk about my University all day but YOU can not. It's just like family. So his inability to put aside his alumni pride in order to fully engage in the conversation was disappointing but not surprising. However, one poignant moment that came out of our exchange was his sharing his own past experiences with racism on UMD's campus and of being called the N-word on occasion during his time there. He then said to me, "Well, you know how it is..." before correcting himself and re-stating, "...actually you don't, because you went to Howard." My response: "Exactly."

Graduates at Howard University Commencement
Now, let me be forthright: I was accepted to the University of Maryland as well, and Bowie State, and Tuskegee, and a few other historically black colleges (HBCUs) and PWIs. However, I chose Howard because I had one goal in mind: to be a great journalist, and I heard Howard, less than 10 miles from my childhood home, had an outstanding School of Communications, which I quickly learned was true. At the time, I wasn't motivated to attend Howard for the opportunity to engage more with people who looked like me. After all, I grew up in Prince George's County, noted as the richest African-American county in the country. I was always majorly surrounded by people who looked like me, whether in church, in my community, and from elementary school to high school. So Howard was not a departure from the norm, it was just more of the wonderful same.

However, I soon realized that my upbringing was different than most students I encountered on campus, who rejoiced in the opportunity to openly celebrate themselves, their culture, and their heritage without judgment, fear, or backlash. Although I was firmly steeped in my "blackness," I did come to appreciate the freedom inside the classroom to speak openly about my people's history (and not just in February, as is the norm in standard school curriculum), and dive deeper into our many contributions.

Students at Cheyney University--the U.S.'s first HBCU
The pain and hurt from racism--both directly and institutionally--that most of had mastered pushing down and setting aside on a daily basis in order to assimilate into the larger society, could now be released and dissected openly among peers, and guided by intellectuals, who were readying all of us for the realities of an unfair and, often, unkind world that does see "color." Ironically, one of the most commonly spewed criticisms I've heard from people about those who choose to attend HBCUs is that students are not prepared for the real world. On the contrary, I'd argue that HBCU students are equally as prepared for the real world, if not more, as we enter it armed with a better sense of knowing who we are which, when coupled with our educational prowess, allows us to stand firm in any situation we are placed. We don't shrink when challenged; we don't scurry when confronted; and we don't settle for less than what we deserve. If that isn't preparation for navigating the real world, then I have no idea what is.

Collins graduation robe displayed at BSU Commencement.
I believe Richard Collins III was already a dynamic young man, due in part to his loving mother and father, who raised him to be all that he became in his brief 23 years on earth. But I also believe he embodied even more "fearlessness" and tenacity thanks in part to the love and nurturing he received from his family at Bowie State University, whose motto "Prepare for Life" is instilled in its students every day. At a time when United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can be ignorant enough to call HBCUs forged at the height of racial segregation “pioneers” of  “school choice” (when in fact HBCUs were then the only choice for African-Americans, less one be caught at a PWI and risk becoming "strange fruit" hanging from campus trees), and as our country's Administration flirts with cutting funding from HBCUs because they're no longer seen as "needed," in the memory of Richard Collins' and the hateful racism that caused his death, I beg to differ and hope it serves as a reminder not only of the necessity of these schools but also of the work that still needs to be done to heal an insufferably, sick world.

This is not to say that HBCUs don't have their share of headaches and heartaches; God knows they do. But at a time in a young person's life when balancing Calculus classes, tuition fees, and marching band rehearsals is stressful enough, at the very least, a student should be able to cross a college campus in peace without carrying the weight of a racial slur shouted at them in addition to their backpack full of books. Life will provide enough opportunities for race to rear its ugly head; an institution of "high learning" should not be one of them.

RIP Brave Soldier. Your HBCU family salutes you.

Photo Credits: N/A

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Audacity to Be Both Black and Great

As I sat in typical DC rush hour traffic this morning, my text message indicator went off. It was a message from a friend. No explanation; no pre-commentary. Just a Twitter post link. As I often do, I searched for a key word in the link before opening and saw the word "Diddy." I immediately said out loud, "Oh this is gonna be good" in a I-know-this-is-going-to-contain-some-foolery-as-only-Diddy-can-bring kind of good. And yet he did not disappoint, for there he was styled in a black suit with a full-length embellished cape flanked by long-time "boo thang" Cassie in her own head-turning, full-length black gown.

They could have sashayed down the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Gala's red carpet with an equal amount of showmanship as any of the other styled-too-death couples, except for one thing: Diddy took his entrance up a notch (and perhaps Cassie's down two) when he, as he said, "got tired," and decided to rest on the MET stairs. Now, I'm sure Diddy wasn't that tired. But you don't get to be a multi-millionaire celebrity without a few calculated, attention-grabbing moves along the way. And so the photo went viral, Twitter went crazy, and I lost at least two hours of my morning once I got to work laughing at the numerous memes that were created from his now iconic move. Initially, I admit, my first reaction was of annoyance, as Diddy is never short of being, as folks say, "extra." After all, this was THE premiere fashion event of the year. Who would dare show it any contempt?

As an alum of Howard University along with Diddy, I recall the great divide between alumni over his being asked to deliver the Commencement address back in 2014. Many who knew "Sean" personally during his school days thought his being asked was a fitting invitation marking all of their "come up" from school boy to certified "Bad Boy"; however, many of us who hold Commencement at "the Mecca" in high regard were not so excited, as we held our collective breath on whether or not he would leave his "extra" at the gate of the Yard. Let's just say that in the end, both sides of the debate got a little of what was expected: a crowning moment of achievement with a dash of "turn up." But again, this is--and probably always will be--Diddy. And upon further reflection, I'm okay with that.

You see, at the same time Diddy was setting Twitter ablaze, another topic was also trending: that of Baltimore Orioles All-Star center fielder Adam Jones, who was berated by racist taunts at Fenway Park Monday night, while a bag of peanuts was thrown at him. Jones called it one of the worst cases of fan abuse he has heard in his career and, yet, he was doing nothing more than his job. And then my attention was pulled to a Washington Post article where African-American quadruplets, Nick, Nigel, Zach, and Aaron Wade, from Liberty Township, Ohio, announced their plans to attend Yale. It was an announcement many were awaiting, as the four had each gotten accepted into every Ivy League school they applied to, including Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Stanford, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Vanderbilt. 

Three examples of excellence in entertainment, sports, and academics on display in one day. And although most comments on social media outlets were positive (and hilarious), as usual, there were several where race was again front and center:

On Diddy: "Why are we like this??"

On Jones: "What I learned on twitter today: Negro's get offended if you throw peanuts at them!"

On the Wade Quad: "Notice how none of them are named Tyreek, Jaquiz, or LaTron."

And then I was reminded of something my mother always said: "Damned if you do; damned if you don't." Even if all you're doing is having the audacity to be your best self, there's always someone lurking in the shadows with criticism--even if that someone is our subconscious self. 

You see, what most in our community may be too shy to admit is that America's complex history has always created an internal conflict within us as well; a juxtaposition of sorts between us "doing too much" and being "acceptable to the masses." And because we've been both equally praised and ridiculed for our (often imitated) unique flair and execution of expression, we unconsciously find ourselves struggling between being who we are and being who "society" says we should be. For every time someone acts "too extra," we mentally cringe out of fear that their liberation somehow shackles our own progress. Don't be too loud. Don't be too expressive. Don't be too angry. Don't be too outspoken. Don't be too funny. Don't be too extra...lest we all be judged as being "too Black." 

Now, I'm not saying "carte blanche passes" should be given for any outlandish or offensive behavior, regardless of race. However, if wearing outfits of meat to awards shows and riding half clothed on wrecking balls can somehow be celebrated as "trendy," then we have the audacity to be both unique, Black, and "extra" without apology, fear, or explanation. There will always be someone with something to say, but as the most expressive artist of our current day, Kanye West, said, "I'd be worried if they said nothing." So, here's to all of us with the courage to stand in our greatness, however we choose to express it, whether we're slaying--or laying on--the red carpet, excelling academically, or hitting a home run. Zero cares given. No criticism needed. Thank you for noticing.

Photo credits: N/A