You Don’t Know the Real Tessa Thompson, and That’s by Design

Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s December/January 2021 issue.

Over dinner at Bar Centrale, a Theater District haunt in New York City, Tessa Thompson is discussing the scope of her work and how she processes it. Typical interview fare. Then comes the unexpected analogy to Sisqó. Back in the ’90s, she was visiting her dad, Chocolate Genius Inc. musician Marc Anthony Thompson, at a hotel when she realized that the R&B star and his group, Dru Hill, were staying there too. The famed “In My Bed” quartet had rolled up in an SUV blaring their tunes at full volume. “It was cool,” Thompson says, admiring the levels of self-affirmation. “I don’t typically Sisqó around the things I’m in. If I watch them, I’ve got like one viewing, you know?”

No matter; the rest of the world has its eyes locked on Thompson, 38, even if she has become adept at blocking out the collective glare. (In truth, she considers herself “an analog girl in a digital world” — à la Erykah Badu — and secretly wishes she could throw her phone in a lake somewhere.) The growing curiosity that swirls around her is a by-product of her undeniable talent, diverse filmography — the Marvel superheroine Valkyrie; a civil rights leader in Selma; a defiant artist-activist in Sorry to Bother You; a calculating boss lady turned robot in Westworld; a woman born out of Janelle Monáe’s vagina pants in the music video “Pynk” — and her ability to transmit an IDGAF attitude when it comes to any speculation about her personal life or style choices.

Tessa Thompson
CREDIT: AB+DM/THE ONLY AGENCY
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What Spiritual Baths Mean for Black Wellness

Originally published for Allure Magazine on September 17th, 2021.

“I love water. I love praying into the water before I get to a bath, or even just to take a shower,” says Juju Bae, a Hoodoo and Ifa practitioner who speaks about Black traditional religions on her podcast, A Little Juju. “Even if I’m not always putting all the good juju in the water, water in itself is holy. Water itself can hold your intention.”

In many Black spiritual practices that predate colonial interactions, there has long been a reverence for water and cleansing. These rituals and concepts have been preserved and transported to the Americas and beyond as a byproduct of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. They can be found in everything from African Traditional Religions and their descendants, such as Ifa and Black American Hoodoo, to the cultural syncretism embedded in Black expressions of Abrahamic religions.

“Water has no enemy,” says Juju Bae. “It cleanses us physically, it cleanses us spiritually.” She emphasizes that in many African Traditional Religions, water is venerated and viewed as a life source. In the West, she notes, that reverence for nature isn’t typically quite as significant. This has a distinct effect on Black people’s contemporary relationship to water and its multifaceted uses. And in recent months, an aversion to water, soap, or any kind of hygienic tool or practice has been brought to the forefront of our cultural discourse.

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The Cost of Essential Work for Black Women

Originally published for Essence Magazine in digital and print in the September 2021 issue.


On any given day, Deatric Edie is at one of her three jobs managing fast-food establishments. A 42-year-old mother of four, she has been working in the service industry since she was 16—starting at Papa John’s and later adding McDonald’s and Wendy’s to her work day. The routine seems unfathomable. But with salaries, respectively, of nearly $10, $8.65 (the current minimum wage in Florida) and $11, she cannot take care of her family on one job.

Clocking in full shifts at each job, Edie barely has time to sleep or see her children, who are all in their teens and twenties, or her 7-month-old grandchild. She catches as much rest as she can during mandated breaks and by sneaking furtive naps in the bathroom. “My whole life is dedicated to working.” Her jobs are all run by franchise owners, who have not offered her paid sick leave. They have also actively maneuvered to eliminate as many opportunities for overtime as possible. Having had to take unpaid time off from June to August after a COVID infection—a leave she was forced to cut short in order to keep her McDonald’s job—she is now fighting an eviction notice. “My children and I once lived in my car for a year and a half, maybe longer than that,” she says. “I don’t want to have to go through that again.” 

In 2019, one of her sons encouraged her to get involved in the Fight for $15, which organizes workers locally and nationally to increase the federal minimum wage. Since then, she has advocated in the streets and door-to-door to raise support for a livable wage and safe working conditions. These needs only became more critical as the pandemic worsened. Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) were in limited supply. Not only were coworkers clocking in with positive COVID diagnoses, but customers were becoming increasingly hostile to CDC regulations.

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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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Tarana Burke Is Just Trying to Do Her Work

Originally published for The Cut on May 10, 2021.

In October of 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Since then, the term Me Too has taken on many forms: a viral hashtag, shorthand for a Hollywood reckoning, and a tongue-in-cheek barb. When she tweeted those words nearly four years ago, Milano didn’t know that a woman from the South Bronx had already invited survivors of sexual abuse to say “Me Too.”

Back then, Tarana Burke, a survivor herself, was working as an organizer and nonprofit leader in Selma, Alabama. In 2006, she’d founded the organization Just Be Inc., which focuses primarily on helping young girls of color who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation. It was in 2006 that she wrote “me too” on a MySpace page, emphasizing the notion that mass healing, particularly for Black girls, is a radical act of love, empathy, and community care.

Despite Me Too’s origins, many have wondered when Black women’s experiences would receive the same level of attention as high-profile exposés. #MuteRKelly was the culmination of a decade-long effort; and despite testimony from Beverly JohnsonBill Cosby’s reckoning was positioned as a response to white women’s accusations. The initial open letter from the Hollywood-led initiative Time’s Up was overwhelmingly signed by white women.

In recent years, however, multiple Black women have chosen to bravely come into the spotlight and share their stories. Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Jenny Lumet, and others boldly detailed their traumatic experiences with alleged serial predator Russell Simmons in interviews, reported exposés, and the award-nominated On the RecordFKA Twigs alleged that Shia LaBeouf abused her during their relationship, setting a new precedent by filing a tort claim with the intent of donating any damages to domestic violence charities. Rapper T.I. and wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris are facing allegations of sexual assault and facilitating abuse after dozens of messages surfaced on Instagram (the two have not been charged with any crime, and have denied all wrongdoing). Alleah Taylor was introduced to the world while fighting for her life after she was allegedly brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, former Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Chad Wheeler. Despite these horrors making it into the mainstream, there’s still a lack of intersectional analysis and acknowledgment of the nuanced differences for nonwhite survivors. And meanwhile, the public awaits a magical watershed moment for Black survivors.

As the movement continues to confront the harm exacted on Black lives, the question lingers: How do we establish a framework to protect Black survivors, particularly those who aren’t established public figures? The Cut spoke with Tarana Burke about the current state of Me Too, recent headlines about gendered violence in the Black community, and the effort to create anti-carceral community tools and networks of support for working-class Black women.

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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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