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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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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Julian Castro on the 2020 Election: ‘President Trump Is Trying to Stoke White Fear’

Originally posted on Complex October 8th 2020.


2020 has been a year plagued by a lack of clarity and direction, with great loss exacerbated by deep systemic inequalities. The troubling conditions, in America, have been buttressed with recent audio confirming that the executive office knew about the ruinous potential of COVID-19, and willfully misled the public. So far, the death toll from the virus has crossed 200,000.  Deep fissures in the country’s fabric have been exposed, revealing the urgence of policy around healthcare, immigration, housing, and policing. Amongst all of the noise, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has been at the vanguard, facilitating these conversations on the national stage. 

Despite not being a front-runner during primary season, Castro has made waves for framing the immigration conversation around policies such as Section 1325 and 287(g), which criminalizes illegal entry and enforces compulsory collaboration with local law enforcement. Castro focuses on repositioning the narrative of the “American Dream” as one that should be reformed and enabled rather than obstructed, considering the amount of national investment in the flawed precept that we are a country built on the backs of immigrants.

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Sil Lai Abrams Talks Russell Simmons & ‘On the Record’ Doc

This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.


For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood ReporterAbrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.

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Your Guide to New York Rap’s Next Generation

Originally published for Vulture on September 18th, 2020.


2020 commenced with a great loss in New York’s robust contemporary hip-hop scene: the murder of Canarsie’s prodigal son and prince of Brooklyn drill, Pop Smoke, at just 20 years old. His sudden passing left an indelible vacancy in the city. The loss of one of the booming voices of the New York rap community — whose meteoric career was cut short by a violent end — cratered the community and felt like an overwhelming defeat for one of rap’s newest waves in the city.

However, even a cursory look at the current musical landscape in New York would reveal that there is no dearth of emerging talent across the five boroughs — and not all of it is concentrated in drill. Several niches have developed over the past few years, each with their own distinctive sound. Young talented artists are branching out and blazing trails within the new school, as much of the rest of the country dismissively boxes them in as simply trying to duplicate the sounds of the South. From the small empires being built out of Highbridge to the mantles being passed down in Canarsie, artists are beginning to redefine the soundscapes of New York City — and they are as robust as ever.

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The 100 Songs That Define New York Rap, Ranked

Originally published for Vulture on September 14, 2020.



85. Jay-Z ft. UGK, “Big Pimpin’” (1999)

The ’90s ushered in both the rise of the South, which demanded acknowledgment of its contributions to hip-hop, and the emergence of the video vixen. It was only natural, then, that the Roc-A-Fella duo of Dame Dash and Jay-Z would extend an olive branch to UGK, one of the fastest-rising duos from Texas at the time, to collaborate on the biggest single of Jay-Z’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. The song almost didn’t happen, however: Reluctant to collaborate with Jay, Pimp C didn’t submit his verse until the 11th hour, even delaying participating in his now-infamous music-video scene with Gloria Velez. (He ultimately had to film in Miami in lieu of Trinidad’s Carnival, the backdrop for the rest of the crew.) —Shamira Ibrahim

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Bree Newsome is Knocking You Off Your Pedestal

Originally published for Complex on. August 28th, 2020


A little over five years have passed since Bree Newsome commanded the nation’s newsfeeds with the insurgent act of stripping the South Carolina State House of its Confederate adornments. Despite a shift in administration, a viral pandemic and media cycles that have wildly accelerated in the wake of record unemployment and quarantine, as Newsome herself does not hesitate to point out, the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. “The system itself is the problem,” she explains. “I don’t think that the existing system can bring solutions because it’s not broken.”

In the time since her arrest, Newsome has remain unbowed, committing to coalition work in her current residence of North Carolina—such as the Housing Justice Coalition in Charlotte and its state-level campaigns such as #NeedAHome2StayAtHome. She continues to use her social and digital platforms to try to effect grassroots disruption. Simultaneously, monuments around the country—Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Virginia, and Christopher Columbus in Boston, for example—are toppling at a much higher rate than when Newsome initially made headlines. For some, this was a harbinger of an uprising that has yet to fully materialize, while the ever-looming conversation around the November 2020 election casts its shadow over daily protests and steadily increasing unemployment numbers.

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How Megan Thee Stallion, Flo Milli, and Saweetie Dominated 2020

Originally published for Teen Vogue on August 18, 2020.


On March 6, Megan Thee Stallion released Suga, her third extended play project packed with nine bass-heavy tracks about rough sex, making money, and self-love. Anchored by the standout tracks “Savage” and “Captain Hook,” Megan delivered a tongue-in-cheek ode to unrepentant sexual pleasure while switching between rhyme schemes fast enough to give you whiplash.

What would follow was a year filled with women rapping about sexual agency and ensuring that they remain on the foreground of the conversation around hip-hop culture. City Girls, Saweetie, Flo Milli, Doja Cat, and Mulatto all released new music within a four-month span in 2020 as well. Megan’s two major hit songs: “Savage Remix” with Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B broke records. When taking account of 2020’s music distinctiveness, it should be heralded as a year when female rappers took laps around their contemporaries, one hit song after another.

Make no mistake: The power construct in music is still heavily informed by the cishet male gatekeepers of the hip-hop industry. As a genre that historically has served as a magnifying glass for the surrounding environment, patriarchy — and misogynoir in turn — has always received a platform.

But artists like Megan and Cardi B are leveraging their varied skills with a forceful reconstruction of the lascivious Jezebel stereotype that has long been affixed to Black women — removing the shame and immorality from sexual desire and highlighting the transactional power that has always existed. There is a wide range of women’s skill and talent to choose from who are centering their own pleasure and autonomy in a genre that has used the strip club as a litmus test for marketing viability of new songs for the better part of the current millennium.

Doja Cat quickly rose from her novelty single “Moo” off her debut album Amala into a bonafide international star, with singles such as “Juicy,” “Rules,” and “CyberSex,” exploring body positivity, sexual pleasure, and female agency — landing her a coveted feature from Nicki Minaj on the remix Billboard charting single “Say So” in May. Rapper Saweetie, for her part, has navigated the sweet spot of harnessing early 2000s nostalgia while still centering her agency in the song, flipping Petey Pablo’s classic crunk hit “Freek-A-Leek,” “My Type,” and more recently “Tap In.”

Simultaneously, Alabama rapper Flo Milli has quickly risen to relevance, being welcomed into the new vanguard of rappers — with co-signs from The City Girls and Missy Elliott — with her irreverent new project, aptly titled Ho, Why is You Here. Leaning into a brash, bratty timbre with lines that thrust you right into her unrepentant aesthetic, the 20-year-old’s music is as enjoyable as it is clever. “In the Party” and “Beef Flomix” respectively, and have become such cult hits that they can have been found as backing tracks in “fancams” within stan culture; her standout single “Weak” transposes the homonymous SWV track, repurposing it into a dismissive anthem about the failings of men. Her album follows suit accordingly, as each track grows more insolent and cocksure than the last.

The women’s posse is making a comeback too: the Thot Box (Remix) is a collective of up and coming women emcees (Chinese Kitty, Dream Doll, Young MA, Dreezy, and Mulatto) flexing their muscles in response to misogynoir. Cardi B, for her part, has alluded to working on a Ladies’ Night inspired song for her upcoming album.

But how does this moment in rap fit into the greater canon of women’s place in hip-hop history?

The conversation around female artists having agency and sermonizing the power of their sexuality is nothing new. At just 20 years old, a young Kimberly Jones stood alongside her childhood friends Notorious B.I.G. and other label mates in Junior M.A.F.I.A. In a taut 4’11 package, the video for the single “Get Money” off of the group’s debut album, Conspiracy, panned over to a brown-skinned Lil’ Kim, reclining in a salon chair donning a fur, gold chain, and a strapless red dress, while she delivers line after line of erotic haymakers, flexing her sexual power and agency under a mind-blowing flow. Not long after, Lil’ Kim’s career shot into the next gear, with her own debut album, Hardcore, serving as a cultural anchor and template for a new era of women in rap.

As Kim said in the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, “I was supposed to be the girl that was cute and made the guys look good, but I liked being vulgar and explicit sometimes because it made me feel free.”

This disruption was not without significant backlash — as the infamous quote goes, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Coming out of the era dominated by of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and the graphic language reserved for the Biggies and the Jay-Zs of the world, many viewed Kim’s content as oversexed, lewd, and anti-feminist, as opposed to a complement to the content that the other women were producing, similarly to how the Rapsodys and Nonames of the contemporary era are positioned.

Fast forward to present day and the raunchiness that shocked the charts with Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, Foxy Brown’s Ill Na NaMissy and Trina’s “One Minute Man,” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” is still just as subversive — but far less uncommon. A whole new class of young women are rising to the occasion of inverting the norms of male objectification for their benefit in their music. As scholar and authority of hip-hop feminism, Joan Morgan writes in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships — and we accommodate accordingly.”

In the 90s, Lil’ Kim redefined the “alpha” role in hip hop music — and in contemporary times, we see an ascendance of that same perspective, to an overwhelmingly positive reception by the artists’ receptive fanbases, which is a welcome change of circumstances from decades ago. That re-centering of erotic power through women going bar for bar with each other or standing on their own, far from eradicates the industry-standard hip-hop misogyny that still runs rampant, but it allows for having a choice in your relationship with intimacy in hip-hop and power dynamics that is far more expansive than just the cishet male’s perspective.

Yara Shahidi Is a New Kind of Young Hollywood Mogul

This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag


Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.

Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”

The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.

For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.

Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives. 

Versace dress, price upon request, select Versace stores, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n

I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential. 

At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.]. 

The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with. 

Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited. 

Alberta Ferretti polo, $695, shirt,$495, and pants, $525, saks.com, Christian Louboutin heels, $895, christianlouboutin.com, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever. 

In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible. 

I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.