Whitney Houston’s Life in Pictures
Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar on February 11th, 2022.
Ten years have passed since Whitney Houston last graced us with her presence on this earth, a globally beloved icon whose gift wasn’t just a testament to the beauty and power of the human voice, but also the resilience of the human spirit. As the best-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century and one of the best-selling singles artists in history, she has acquired numerous accolades over the course of her career: more than 200 million records and singles sold worldwide, multiple blockbuster films and soundtracks, eight Grammy awards. But most critically, to engage with Whitney’s work, both musically and culturally, is to engage in the work of the divine.It is the faith that informs her vocal style and Black American cultural legacy; that same faith would help her persevere through trials and tribulations when many had become more invested in wading through sordid details of her personal life than embracing her humanity.
There was an effortless purity in Whitney’s power; her crescendoing key changes washed over you like a tidal wave while she commanded the stage with her modelesque grace. Her charm and talent were dynamic and irresistible, rendering even the harshest critics helpless, aiding in crafting her as both the darling of pop, as well as the Black American community. She was a woman who—to paraphrase the words of the Houston family pastor—consistently fought to find a bright light in a dark place, wherever that may be.
In the decade since her passing, much may have changed about popular music, but the impact Whitney has left on her ability to bring life to the universal accessibility of the range of human emotions to the pop ballad remains. On this anniversary, let us take a look at some of the more pivotal moments of her life, through the lens of the following select photos.
The Many Lives of Janet Jackson
Originally published for Vulture on Feb 1, 2022
Janet Jackson’s signature timbre is delicate but firm; it has been her calling card since her youthful days performing alongside her brother Randy at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Even then her petulant demeanor, performed for laughs, communicated a childlike grace with mature clarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Traces of Janet Jackson’s musical DNA would eventually be in everyone from Britney Spears to Bruno Mars to BTS. These are far from novel assessments: Over the years, a number of projects have attempted palliative approaches to rectify the rocky narrative that trailed Jackson after her infamous Super Bowl halftime show — including the rare at-length interview — with the New York Times recently producing a special embracing the pop icon’s transcendent, multigenerational impact that was upended by one of the few forces beyond her control. Now, at long last, Damita Jo has given the definitive account of her life and career to add to her oeuvre — and not a moment too soon, as we’ve lost Black legends in rapid succession of late. Aretha Franklin, who was notoriously very hawkish over her memory and legacy as a walking archive of the Black sonic canon, transitioned before she could see her vision realized onscreen, relegating the arbitrage of authenticity over Jennifer Hudson’s and Cynthia Erivo’s portrayals to a mélange of family, friends, and fans, as opposed to engaging with the art itself.Continue reading
Emily In Paris Lacks Black Women Representation — In French Cinema, That’s Par For The Course
Originally published for Refinery29 on January 7th, 2022.
Over the last couple of years, streaming services have expanded their offerings of projects based in France. While Netflix’s international team has been licensing content and producing original programming in French for some time, the platform struck gold with Emily in Paris, a sanguine — or almost unbearably saccharine, depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you ask — series which centers Lily Collins as Emily, a doe-eyed All-American girl eager to bring her Yankee sensibilities to the City of Love. A few months after EIP’s ubiquitous debut came Lupin in January 2021, a thriller series starring Omar Sy and inspired by the beloved character Arsène Lupin of books, comics, cartoon, and film — a master of disguise and thievery, nearly always portrayed as a white man. While both shows have been runaway hits, they have also been criticized for not having a balanced representation of France, specifically for lacking Black women in any major speaking roles. The reflexive irritation is understandable, as on-screen representation is a common reference point used to reflect the significance of any demographic in the narrative being told. But in French popular media, this glaring omission is actually pretty standard.In Emily in Paris, which debuted its second season last month with a new Black male lead (Lucien Laviscount as Alfie), Black women are barely seen in the background of the streets of Paris, save for an occasional view in the periphery, tucked away from view, up until a fashion show at Versailles. Even in the halls of the historic palace, the women remain as voiceless ornaments for the garish aesthetic of a queer Black male designer (portrayed by Jeremy O. Harris), using the sheer presence of their bodies and all of their twerking, voguing, and ballroom contortions in such a revered space to make his mark as an outsider in the French fashion establishment. Black femmes were used for nothing but spectacle.Continue reading
The Courage of bell hooks
Originally published for Vulture on December 17th, 2021.
The hills of Kentucky are enveloped in a legacy of resistance — first against the white colonizers who touched the Indigenous land we call America, and later against a state that confined an increasingly nonconformist working class, derogatorily designated hillbillies. It’s in the crevices of Appalachian dissent and Southern discontent that bell hooks, née Gloria Watkins, was born, in the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952. Her chosen name is an homage to her great grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, styled in lowercase to decenter herself in deference to her family and the work she would go on to produce, publishing over 30 books and scholarly articles — a lodestar for decades of Black feminist writing and scholarship — before her untimely passing at 69.
hooks would eventually leave Kentucky, citing her family’s move away from the hillside and into the fabric of mainstream society — as well as the racialized violence that framed her childhood in the 1950s and ’60s — as the impetus for her urge for other milieus. She went on to study at Stanford, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and UC Santa Cruz, bringing a commitment to community and the spirit of Black self-determination forged in the Kentucky hills to the confined spaces of academia. She was 19 years old when she put pen to paper and offered up the first draft of Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (published in 1981), introducing the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to the feminist canon as a descriptor of the interlocking mechanisms of domination well before intersectional feminism and all of its misapplications would become standard vernacular for the purportedly progressive-minded. She embraced a pedagogical mission of giving clarity and context to ongoing discussions, encouraging those who dared to interrogate existing ideas of race, class, or gender. Her approach to it all was informed by radical possibilities: We are not exclusively defined by any one single classification as long as we are fully present in all of them.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.”
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 .Continue reading