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Common and Selita, Uptown Magazine (coming soon)

Cosmic Heights–Earth, Wind and Fire
Wax Poetics

That’s the handsome MC Perry Jones onstage.  It’s 1974 at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, and Jones is looking out to a pitch-black arena.  The only thing the audience can see is his genie-like, glowing full-length robe and his turban with a sparkling diamond covering his nearly foot-tall Afro.  In the omnipresent voice of a prophet, he announces the opening act in a slow, deliberate baritone: “Presenting! The Elements of the Universe, Earth! Wind! And Fire!”

A disembodied, glow-in-the-dark kalimba appears.  Maurice White, shirtless, begins playing the first notes of the eight-minute, extra-funky, Latin-soul workout that is “Power,” the standout from their third album, Last Days and Time.  Led by thrilling rhythms of Ronnie Laws on saxophone and the wild, Hendrix-reminiscent guitar solo or Roland Bautista, it winds down with Laws’s smooth, subtle flutes, Larry Dunn’s Fender Rhodes and Clavinet, and turns the corner back to the beginning with White’s kalimba.


There’s Something About Lenny
Uptown Magazine

The manic energy of Manhattan morphs into slow motion as Lenny Kravitz walks the streets of the Meatpacking District. He’s uncharacteristically conservative in a black oxford shirt, David Ruffin–style glasses, a gray blazer, and a peacoat while click-clacking across the cobblestone streets in what he calls “church shoes.” Heads swivel. Bartenders dart out of saloons, asking in broken English to take a picture with him. Women with their daughters swoon: “He’s so cute!” Soon the pace picks up as the paparazzi begin to swarm—on bicycles, on foot, seeming to rise from potholes, snapping with their industrial-size zoom lenses from windows above. Still, Kravitz stays at the same speed, obliging everyone, bending down to pet the dogs of a lady struggling with six of them on a leash, not flustered, cracking jokes, and having a good time.

He doesn’t travel with an entourage or a security guard or even a pet toy poodle. “He’s cool with everybody when we walk the streets in New Orleans,” says Trombone Shorty, who guests on Kravitz’s new album, Black and White America, and occasionally cameos on the HBO series Treme. Kravitz bought his first home ever in the N.O. on a whim after visiting one year for Jazz Fest. He moved into a dilapidated house and never moved back to New York. Shorty continues, “He talks to everybody. He’s just a cool cat.”

“I think the fact that he raised a child on his own has made him an…”


Raphael Saddiq:  Stone Rollin’
Wax Poetics

Like Raphael Saadiq’s acclaimed 2008 album, The Way I See It—a downtown ode to the Motown-Stax-Philly International eras—his latest album due out May 10, Stone Rollin’, conjures up nostalgia, with dust-track roads and sock-hop, bluesy, British soul fusion. Saadiq keeps proving that he is a master of musical reinvention and one of the last pure musicians and great songwriters from the New Jack Swing era operating in commercial music.

“He’s not doing what he was doing—never mind when he first started out—he’s not doing what he was doing on his last album,” notes Gary Harris, industry veteran and musical director for the upcoming Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life.

Not everyone can rock out in homage to Solomon Burke with Mick Jagger and have the Grammy audience in a near raucous church stomp. In that artistic spirit, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and vocalist ushers in a new soul invasion with Stone Rollin’—invoking fresh-faced beach boys, church growlers, blues twanging, marching bands, old-school crooning, and legendary bass lines.

more… (coming soon)

The Roots:  Running Deep
Uptown Magazine

It’s the first day of school at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts in 1987, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is sitting in the office waiting to get school tokens, watching in awe as Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, an incoming freshman, is being suspended for messing around with a girl in the bathroom.

The two start to chat as they sit on the bench, though they hail from far-flung worlds. Thompson grew up in West Philly; his mother bought him trendy clothes from thrift shops in New York’s Greenwich Village, and his doowop singer father had him working as his bandleader by the time he was 13…


Gil Scott-Heron
Wax Poetics

Last summer, my father navigated traffic along FDR Drive in his 1980-something Volkswagen to get us uptown from Brooklyn as we traveled to Mt. Morris Park to see Gil Scott-Heron.  My two daughters sat in the back, surprisingly quiet.  Their connection to him was more far-flung: through his former collaborator Brian Jackson.  Specifically, they played with his daughters regularly, through their friendship between my sister and Jackson’s ex-wife, Megan. 

We got to the park, traversed through hordes of people, and managed to get a seat on the grass up front.  We sat with our Styrofoam containers filled with curry chicken, and we listened to Gil perform sets with the energy of a man half his age.  Though his body was slight, his face worn, and his skin thickening from abuse, his voice was strong, without the shaky vibrations of age or the lockjaw of vices…  


The Toughest Lap
The Washington Post

He rolls along in his battered wheelchair with the rusty bearings and the wobbly wheels, chattering loudly into his cell phone as he passes drugstores, steakhouses and outdoor cafes, maneuvering into the street to avoid curbs.

It takes him about 15 minutes to make the mile-and-a-half trip from his apartment at 16th and Belmont streets NW to the YMCA on Rhode Island Avenue. Inside, the smell of chlorine hangs in the air. Lifeguards circle the pool in their red T-shirts and trunks while swimmers stretch their muscles on blue mats in the musty artificial heat.

After tugging on his gray swimsuit, he rolls out to the pool, easing himself from the wheelchair onto the floor. A tattoo of a wave ripples on his biceps as he scoots into the water.

He starts out easy, wearing paddles on his hands to improve his stroke and a buoy that he designed tucked between his legs to keep them afloat. Swimming at a steady pace, he stretches his arms to pull deeper, his chin tucked into his chest for better momentum, squeezing maximum distance out of every stroke. When he reaches the wall, instead of doing a flip turn, he uses one hand to maneuver himself around and push off for the next lap.


Don Cornelius:  
‘Soul Train’ ‘s Silky-Smooth Conductor Remembered by Close Friends, Admirers

This past summer was the first and last time I ever saw Don Cornelius in person. He was at the Expo 72 in Chicago, which featured an exhibition of rare photos and vintage footage from Soul Train, the television show he produced for 35 years. The day before, the steely, still-smooth train operator (and former radio reporter at Chicago’s WVON) was impeccably turned out in all-black leather and alligator shoes, serving as a panelist at a screening of the VH1 Soul Train documentary, The Hippest Trip in America. He was in rare form. Sometimes, he was so blunt that audience members would visibly squirm, or the whole room would fall silent, unnerved by his honesty. He hurled playful expletives at his childhood friend Richard Steele, from Chicago public radio outlet WBEZ, who moderated the panel. Straight answers weren’t part of his repertoire. I was immediately impressed.


The Roots:  Running Deep
Uptown Magazine

It’s the first day of school at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts in 1987, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is sitting in the office waiting to get school tokens, watching in awe as Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, an incoming freshman, is being suspended for messing around with a girl in the bathroom.

The two start to chat as they sit on the bench, though they hail from far-flung worlds. Thompson grew up in West Philly; his mother bought him trendy clothes from thrift shops in New York’s Greenwich Village, and his doowop singer father had him working as his bandleader by the time he was 13…


Rising Up: Jennifer Hudson

American Way Magazine

Jennifer Hudson’s producers, publicists and managers are all inside the North Hollywood Mason Sound recording studio, but there’s no recording going on just yet. Instead, they’re killing time watching basketball on a big-screen TV, their laughter, squeals and groans bouncing off the wooden rafters and against the gold and platinum records — from artists like Michael Jackson, Kelly Clarkson, Jamie Foxx and Hudson herself — that hang on the walls.

Hudson’s entourage sits transfixed by the screen, either oblivious or accustomed to the paparazzi lurking outside, armed with flashbulbs, teetering on bicycles and waiting — like everyone else — for Hudson to arrive.

But it’s not the diva-making-her-grand-entrance kind of waiting. It’s just that most of her days are testaments to a fluid life and career: a photo shoot in the morning, dialect coaching in the afternoon for her role as Winnie Mandela in an upcoming biopic, and a studio session in the evening for her upcoming sophomore album. She somehow manages to juggle all these activities with her irresistible, perpetually smiling son, David Daniel Otunga Jr., in tow.

more… (coming soon)

Microphone Fiend Rakim Is Back
Wax Poetics

In 1985, DJ Marley Marl was working in his studio that doubled as his sister Belle’s second-floor apartment in the Queensbridge Houses—a sprawling ninety-six-building project, a small city of some thirty thousand residents in Long Island City, Queens. The apartment was sparsely decorated with a creaky couch that Eric B. slept on, reel-to-reels against the wall, records from floor to ceiling, and a drum machine that Marley slept with because he didn’t want anyone to touch it.

During the day, Marley worked at the Sergio Valente jeans factory. A barely teenage Roxanne Shante was becoming well known as a rapper and a booster—shoplifting for mothers in her building. Her own mother sold underwear to hookers from a shopping cart by the Dutch Kills ho stroll. A stone’s throw away was Hollywood’s second cousin, the newly minted Silvercup Studios where new movie stars were being bred daily. But inside Queensbridge, there was a different kind of movie rolling without the Klieg lights. Residents were robbing people for their sneakers, walking around with blades to snatch the patches off Lee jeans, and claiming the uninitiated for their sheepskins and leather goose coats. Foreigners to Queensbridge were chased out, and if they went in the wrong direction to get to the train station, “They’d find themselves butt naked by the river,” recalls MC Shan by telephone with a wicked laugh.

more… (coming soon)

Blind wrestler battles way to Maryland championships
Sports Illustrated

Michael Spriggs, a 6-foot-3, 189-pound senior at C.H. Flowers High (Prince George’s County, Maryland), listened intently as his coaches directed him in a wrestling match against Bladensburg (Md.) High’s Marcus Bates last month.

Because Spriggs is blind, battling opponents with vision, the rules require that he and his opponent maintain contact throughout the match. They begin with both palms touching each other. When the whistle blows, Bates immediately dives for a shot at Spriggs’ legs, takes him down and Spriggs ends up on his back. “Let’s go Mike! Stay in control, circle left!” head coach Odist Felder yelled from the sidelines.

Despite this apparent disadvantage, Spriggs finished his second season with a 27-11 record. His humility and determination led him to become one of two team members to qualify for the state championships last weekend where he was defeated, 9-3, by reigning champion, Danny Miller, a junior at Stephen Decatur High (Ocean City, Md.).

“He has a lot of heart and courage,” Miller said. “And if your opponent has a lot of heart you could easily find yourself on your back.”


Jazz Meets Hip Hop
Jazz Times

With the next millennium fast approaching, we are witnessing a musical and cultural phenomenon—a collage-producing jump-cutting, mix and match blending of American urban music—jazz and hip-hop. Not that this strikes a lot of folks as good news. Some see hip-hop and jazz as an unholy alliance, the trivialization— maybe even vulgarization of jazz, that great American art form.

But musicians who share the same bloodlines often see the genre-melding as a positive development.

More and more these days, in fact, the offspring of famous jazz musicians are experimenting with jazz and hip-hop hybrids—with their parents’ blessings. Quincy Jones’ son, QDIII, is a rap producer. The sons of Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes are also involved with the music. Kenyatta Bell, the son of bassist Samuel Aaron Bell, produces rap records, as do the sons of saxophonist Marion Brown and Horace Silver— Djinji Brown and Greg Silver.  Three generations down the line, rap producer Rene McLean is part of an emerging musical dynasty, being the son of saxophonist Rene McLean, Sr., and the grandson of sax legend Jackie McLean. Many of these artists were happy to discuss the trend toward blending the two musics—the problems, the promise and the controversies.


Profile of Little Melvin Williams and The Wire
Baltimore Magazine

Melvin Douglas Williams waits in a small room off of the main entrance to the Bethel AME church on Druid Hill Avenue, wearing his signature all-black clothing. A black towel draped over his shoulder, yellow tinted sunglasses by his side. A picture of a crucified, brown skinned Jesus hangs on the wall to his left. In front of him are lockers tacked with BELIEVE stickers.

As camera crews, extras and cast from the third season of theHBO series The Wire mill around him, Williams sits in a red leather chair, self-possessed and indifferent to the confusion around him. Bethel AME is his church, but today, it’s where he will work on his acting chops.

Moments later, Williams is sitting in a pew, facing stained glass windows, filming a scene in which he counsels a young man trying to get his life in order after being released from prison. Williams plays a deacon at this church, a man whose job it is to tend to wayward souls like the one now before him.


Black Soil: Interview with Fidel Castro
City Paper Online

It is a typical 80 degree day in Miami, and the one 45-minute flight that leaves daily for Cuba is filled to its approximate 125-seat capacity. Bags, sky blue plastic wrap securely swaddling each with the names of the owners written in bold letters on the front, are being loaded onto the plane. The process to get on this flight has been an arduous one–with travel affidavits, visas, passports, and detailed explantations as to visiting purposes along the way–and the crowd is giddy and sometimes irrational with anticipation. 

“I paid $400 for this ticket, and this man is in my seat!” one man reeking like a brewery and dressed in dark green army fatigues grunts loudly, though there is an empty seat in the same row next to his assigned seat. He opens his hands in indignation and admonishes the flight attendant for not acting fast enough in removing the offending party–John Boyd Jr.–because, as he sees it, “I paid for my seat.”

“Everyone on the flight has paid for their seat,” the flight attendant reminds him, deviating from her plastic-smile routine with just a hint of disgust.


Creating an Oasis, Inner City or Desert

The New York Times

WHEN Jackie Mullins suggested to her husband, Houston, that they celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary in East St. Louis, Ill., a largely black city known for its social problems, he didn’t think there would be much worth seeing there. Gradually, she persuaded him, and the couple came up from Memphis and signed in at the Parker Garden Bed and Breakfast, a 1912 Tudor-style home owned by Herrett and John Parker.

There the Mullinses ate homemade honey-nut wheat bread and omelets for breakfast, and relaxed in a whirlpool bath. Mr. Parker, a game enthusiast, taught them how to play mancala, an ancient African board game somewhat like Chinese checkers. And they got the real flavor of St. Louis from their hosts, who drove the couple past blues clubs; the Trans World Dome, where the Rams play football; Busch Stadium, home to Mark McGwire; the St. Louis Black History Museum and the Black Repertory Theater, and the flamboyantly colored pink and lime-green historic houses of Lafayette Square, with their turn-of-the-century French styling.


Gentrification in DC
Crisis Magazine

AS Louise Thomas begins the third-hour of her shift at Martha’s Table, a social service organization in Washington D.C., construction workers from a nearby project of new condominiums stop by.

Thomas, 76, has lived in Northwest Washington for 60 years. In the last decade she has seen the complexion of her neighborhood near Florida Avenue and 14th Street change dramatically. Her block, once notorious for a ruthless open-air drug market, is now hot property. Buildings that were burned out during riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 1968, have been replaced by big businesses and loft—style condominiums.

The disabled and elderly men and women from Clifton Terrace, a former public housing complex, no longer make the short trek to Martha’s Table to get daily meals, because they no longer live there. The housing complex is now a condominium with a mix of low-, moderate- and high-income residents. The public schools in the area, like Cardozo Senior High School, where six of Thomas’s seven children went, are no longer filled to capacity. Most of the newcomers don’t have children, and those who do send them to elite, private schools.


Confessions:  Floyd Mayweather

Uptown Magazine

The whipping sound of a jump rope falls in time to James Brown chanting, “The Payback,” over the loudspeaker at Floyd Mayweather’s training gym in Las Vegas a little more than a week before the big event.  Mayweather is a whirlwind, entertaining the crowd with is BFF 50 Cent, punching the heavy bag, sparring for hours with his uncle Roger.  With 26 knockouts, 43 wins, and $200 million in winnings, his place in history is cemented.  He has reinvigorated a sport marred by corruption.  Mayweather is the man everyone loves to hate, but no one can bear to turn away from him for too long. 

There he is on HBO’s 24/7 eating fried chicken and onion rings.  He has bags of cash divided into 10k bankrolls that he can spend on a whim, or recklessly gamble.  He has a fleet of white cars in Vegas, black ones in Miami.