The Wild Wonders of Biz Markie

Originally published in Vulture on July 23, 2021.

Around the turn of the century, ViacomCBS property VH1 pivoted to its “Music First” era, punctuated by its original programs like The Greatest, a compilation show that purported to count down influential cultural and musical moments — from the “100 Greatest Love Songs” to the “40 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of the ’90s” — from a position of expertise and authority. One episode that aired in 2002, “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders,” featured ubiquitous flash-in-the-pan classics like Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (which topped the list) and Deee-Lite’s dance hit “Groove Is in the Heart.” Rounding out the list at No. 81 stood “Just a Friend,” the smash hit from Marcel Theo Hall out of Long Island, better known as the late New York legend Biz Markie. Known for its intentionally scratchy and warbly refrain — a fortuitous result of requested singers failing to show up to the recording session — and simple yet distinct C-major melody, the track, alongside the debut of his album The Biz Never Sleepswent gold in 24 hours.

Much of what informed the popularity of the single was endemic to both the time in which it was released and the persona of Markie himself. The lyrics, depicting a lamentable tale of thwarted affections, are delivered in a deliberate, narrative style that leaves the listener both bemused and curious about the veracity of the sequence of events (Markie, for the record, has always claimed his lyrics to be renditions of real stories: “I didn’t know how to write no other way,” he said). The corresponding video serves as a capsule in time to a specific era in Black American urban history: Markie is resplendent with rope chains and Cuban links, donning a Georgetown sweater that hearkens back to a time when the university’s basketball team felt indelible to the Black cultural fabric of the 1980s, generating stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and later Allen Iverson. For nearly half of the video, Markie engages in jocular theatrics, switching into a powdered wig and embodying a character that is equal parts Mozart and James Brown. These dismembered pieces — self-deprecating lyricism, dynamic percussion, and whimsical, referential presentation — boiled together to help establish Markie’s unofficial status as the self-declared Clown Prince of Hip-Hop.

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With All Due Respect, Miss Jennifer Hudson

Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s August 2021 Issue.

During the third season of American Idol auditions, a young Jennifer Hudson strolls in sporting a black sleeveless dress and a sunny smile. The Chicago native, then 23 years old, announces that she will be singing “Share Your Love with Me,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, to slight skepticism from judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. (“We’re going to expect something better than a cruise-ship performance, right?” Jackson inquires after it is revealed that Hudson just wrapped up a job on a Disney cruise line.) Not one minute later, the trio are visibly stunned by her moving rendition, which blew the roof off the building. Jackson even goes so far as to declare that she is “absolutely brilliant, the best singer I’ve heard so far,” and they unanimously decide to send her to the next round. The rest, as they say, is history.

The world may have been introduced to Jennifer Hudson through her homage to Aretha Franklin, but not even in her wildest dreams did she expect to be in the presence of the Queen of Soul herself nearly three years later, in 2007, with Franklin requesting that she portray her in Respect, a biopic about her life. But Hudson is no stranger to turning fantasies into reality — during our conversation, her Pomeranian, aptly named Dreamgirl, starts yapping. “Her father was Oscar, and her mother was Grammy. Then they had a puppy, and I named it Dreamgirl,” she explains. “I got the dog Oscar before I won my Oscar for Dreamgirls. And then I said, ‘Oscar needs a wife. So how about I get a dog and name it Grammy, and maybe I’ll win a Grammy.’ And then I got the dog Grammy, and I won the Grammy.”

Jennifer Hudson
CREDIT: CHRISEAN ROSE
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Angélique Kidjo Is Tapping the Next Generation to Speak Truth to Power

Originally published for Rolling Stone on May 21, 2021

One day in 1992, Angélique Kidjo walked into a magazine editor’s office and found herself being introduced over the phone to one of her all-time favorite artists.

“Someone said, ‘Mrs. Kidjo, Mr. Brown wants to talk to you,’” she recalls. In stunned disbelief, she replied, “Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa.” But it really was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, asking to talk to her.

“I almost dropped the phone,” she continues. “He was speaking, and I couldn’t understand, so I started singing. He picked up the song and I would do the bassline, I would do the guitar, I would do the drums — just like, crazy stuff.”

It’s just one of a sea of stories of Kidjo meeting and collaborating with all-time greats across generations. Over the course of her three-decade long career, Kidjo, 60, has dipped into the vast well of legendary artists and performers across the black diaspora — taking inspiration from South African artist and activist Miriam Makeba, Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz, Aretha Franklin, and many more. She has collaborated with many of the African continent’s greatest legends, from the bluesy stylings of Boubacar Traoré to Manu Dibango’s Cameroonian jazz saxophone lyricism.

After a storied career of paying her respects through endless innovation within black sonic canons, she has the distinct honor of being exalted on the level of the artists she adores, with young artists throughout the international black community often referring to her as “Ma” or grande soeur. Now, she is paying that respect forward wherever possible — including rounding out her latest album, Mother Nature, with collaborative features from emerging young artistic voices in the African continent and its diaspora, ranging from Nigerian star Burna Boy to Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang .

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Black Excellence Has Arrived on The Real Housewives of New York City

Originally published for The Cut on May 19, 2021

In the premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City’s 13th season, cast member Leah McSweeney waits patiently in Central Park as a petite Black woman strides into view sporting a mask adorned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the names Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey, and Raymond, also known as the Exonerated Five, who were convicted and later vacated of the aggravated assault and rape of a young white woman in Central Park. McSweeney would later go on to introduce the woman from the scene to Sonja Morgan as “Black-girl magic personified” and proceed to request her presence at the infamously anachronistic Morgan townhouse for brunch. Eboni K. Williams has made her grand entrance into the Real Housewives franchise, and true to the messaging in her debut book, Pretty Powerful, she is using all of the available tools at her disposal to make her mark.

“Everything I seek is owed to me,” Williams states unabashedly. “I also make it my first business to be worthy of everything — to show up in a capacity of unadulterated, unimpeachable excellence.” That conviction has brought her to a place where she feels she can set her own terms, introducing the New York Housewives to someone else’s experiences for the first time, as opposed to merely having them endure a culture shock.

Being the first to accomplish something is not an unfamiliar feeling for Williams: Her life and career have been punctuated by firsts, from being the first Black woman at her law firm to the first to host an early prime-time show on Fox News. “We all start connections, start conversations, and start developing ideas about one another before we utter a word,” Williams points out, doubling down on the ethos of Pretty Powerful, which emphasizes that the choice between substance and appearance is a false one. “I had a lot of intentionality around what I was trying to convey to this new group of friends and women, from the Central Park scene where I wear the Exonerated Five on my chest to the bold pink blazer-dress in Sonja Morgan’s townhouse, where I’m conveying femininity but also strength.” Her sartorial references are all crafted with an objective in mind, down to her donning a Howard sweatshirt in the distinctive pink-and-green color scheme associated with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a nod to the historically Black organization’s founding chapter as well as a subtle acknowledgment of Vice-President Kamala Harris, all reinforcing the central theme in her book: “an awareness and leveraging of how we package and present our femininity as an aesthetic that is uniquely authentic and impactful.”

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The Irreplaceable Black Rob, Bad Boy’s First Street Story

Originally published for Vulture on April 19th, 2021.

“I work hard for everything I own, and I deserve this / The hardest thing right about now is staying alive, who’d’ve thought Diddy would part ways with Clive?” 

Black Rob, “Live From the Eastside” (unreleased)

When people think of the dawn of the Bad Boy era in hip-hop in the early to mid-’90s, the focal point is often centered on the Notorious B.I.G. — his meteoric rise and tragic end. Less commonly recognized is the fact that Black Rob, né Robert Ross of Spanish Harlem, was one of the earliest signees to Bad Boy Records — joining the camp, founded by Uptown Records alum and mogul-in-training Sean “Puffy” Combs, soon after Craig Mack’s arrival in 1994 — and helped lay the groundwork for some of the quintessential moments in the label’s legacy for years before his platinum-selling debut album, Life Story, was finally released for public consumption in 2000, resulting in his biggest hit, “Whoa!” A street soldier who might have looked out of place in the Shiny Suit Era of Bad Boy’s glossy music videos but stood strong among some of the era’s greatest artists from Biggie to Mase, Black Rob charted his own critically acclaimed path in a dominant space up until his death at 51 on Saturday, April 17.

Originally under the moniker Bacardi Rob, it was Rob’s ear to the bellicose rhythms that pervaded Harlem’s streets that brought the fellow raucous rapper from the Johnson Houses, G. Dep, into the Bad Boy Entertainment fold in 1998. The two collaborated repeatedly throughout their tenure on the label, most notably on the classic single and video “Let’s Get It.” But even prior to getting G. Dep signed, Rob was essential to establishing the label’s presence. It was mutual friend R.P. who connected Bacardi Rob with Combs, whom he impressed with his skill set; Rob allowed Combs to rename him Black Rob for the stage. He also gained the favor of longtime Bad Boy executive and current president, Harve Pierre, who would ultimately prove critical to Rob’s career trajectory at the label. He’d go on to give a scene-stealing performance on Mase’s 1997 debut, Harlem World, with “24 Hrs. to Live,” alongside DMX; his “I Dare You” collaboration with Pierre, then performing under the stage name Joe Hooker, made the soundtrack to the 1998 film Slam; his rapport with the LOX — Bad Boy’s rap trio of Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch — on the 2000 album cut “Can I Live” showcased his ability to hold court with some of the New York area’s biggest heavyweights. Rob was prominently featured on the iconic cover of Puff’s 1997 debut album, No Way Out, with a standout track of his own, “I Love You Baby,” and had features on tracks with Bad Boy’s stable of R&B artists, from 112 to Total. Biggie anointed him on 1998’s “Victory”: “Black Rob joined the mob, it ain’t no replacin’ him.”

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Remembering Phife Dawg as Only His Mother Could

Originally published for LEVEL on January 4, 2021.

More so than other years, 2020 has been encapsulated by grief. Confinement borne of an unforeseen pandemic has forced most of the world to wallow in the depth of its losses and empowered this anguish to strangle us in its isolating grip until it knows most of us by name. Poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, however, has been walking this path of grief for years — ever since her beloved son, A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor, lost his long fight with diabetes in 2016.

Taylor speaks grief’s language. She has an intimate familiarity with how the waves of emotion can crescendo into maddening heights, giving way to the empty ache left behind. That closeness gives way to clarity in her newest book: Mama Phife Represents, a delicate latticework of remembrance out this week that explores the days following Phife’s passing in print, photo, and sketch. In doing so, it finds a way to reexamine and reshape how we honor our beloveds in both life and death.

The practice of elegy — rooted in the ancient Greek word elegos, meaning “mournful song” — is a time-honored classical tradition, commonly served in the form of the elegiac couplet. It’s the framework in which English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson laments the loss of his first son, the means by which American great Walt Whitman honors Abraham Lincoln in the oft-referenced “O Captain! My Captain!” But conventions are made to be broken, and the mother of the Funky Diabetic, whose group made its indelible impact in hip-hop with transcendent, unorthodox projects such as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, delivers nothing less than an offering that honors her familial legacy. The book moves between couplets and freeform prose, pivoting to anecdotes, lyrics, and dreams with an ease and musicality that transport you between the worlds of Malik the man and Phife Dawg the persona—the universes of Linden Boulevard, the superstardom of Tribe, and the cultural anchor that remained in their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.

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Aya Nakamura – AYA

This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.


Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.

Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.

The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.

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HOW DJ KITTY CA$H IS CREATING SPACE FOR BLACK WOMEN THROUGH ANIMATION

Originally published for Nylon on December 14th, 2020

Kitty Ca$h is an artist, producer, DJ, and universe all unto her own, having worked with everyone from SZA to Rihanna. In the midst of one of the most destabilizing pandemics of the modern era, Ca$h worked to find and reclaim a happy space for herself and others, combing through the archives of her text messages and the routines that have long brought her comfort.

Through that excavation arrived Kitty’s World, a new IGTV series, and digital reinvigoration of the feeling of running home to watch the BET classic talk show Cita’s World from the early aughts. Reprising the titular role through a contemporary lens, and pushing the vanguard of couture, digital collation, vulnerability, and community, Ca$h created a bridge between generations through the purview of an avatar — each episode a reflection of the different layers of a Black woman’s experience, anchored by contemporary music. From challenging gender norms to honoring the Black Lives Matter movement through music, the cultural innovator worked to bring prescient conversations to the forefront of her animated series through a combination of uninhibited creativity, sharpness, and trust in a collective vision of voices.

NYLON recently spoke with Kitty Ca$h about the series and her hopes for the next season.

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The Fight for $15 Is More Important Than Ever

Originally published for Complex on Oct 20, 2020.


In 2012, 200 fast food workers went on strike outside of a McDonald’s on 40th and Madison in Manhattan, demanding fair wages and a union. 

In the almost eight years since, much has changed—the flagship Times Square location shuttered in June of 2020, and what was once dismissed as a fringe idea is now a popular national platform, for both Democratic and Republican voters. Seven states (and the District of Columbia), along with 15 cities and counties, passed legislation to gradually increase the wage to $15 an hour—resulting in $78 billion in raises for more than 24 million workers—and the Raise the Wage Act was successfully passed in the House.

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90 Day Fiancé Is Everyone’s Guilty Pleasure. But Is It Exploiting Immigrants?

Originally published for Zora Magazine on October 20th.


Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”

Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.

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