Five New Yorkers Describe How Michael Bloomberg’s Era of Stop-and-Frisk Changed New York City

Originally published for OkayPlayer in March 2020.

Michael Bloomberg’s support of stop-and-frisk during his time as New York City mayor continues to follow him in his 2020 presidential campaign. We talked to five New Yorkers about how the policy impacted the city. 

The recent and rapid elevation of Michael Bloomberg‘s Presidential campaign into the national discourse is reminiscent, in many ways, of his original mayoral run in New York City in 2002. Forgoing fundraising from the public, he has nonetheless outspent his opponents multiple times over, having made FEC filings detailing $460 million in expenditures since announcing his bid in November of 2019. Both then and now, the largesse-via-electioneering nullified the opportunity for many opposing candidates to be comparably competitive or resonant as they were drowned out by a blank check and name recognition. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has also resurfaced three words that leave an acrid taste in the majority of New Yorkers’ mouths — stop-and-frisk. A longstanding policing practice that disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities in NYC, stop-and-frisk was defended by Bloomberg’s administration during — and well after — his departure from office.  

The phraseology behind the policy has taken on many forms as the decades have progressed, shapeshifting in language as administrations have waded in and out of Gracie Mansion. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani lorded over the five boroughs with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton flanking him, the terminology that was used was known as broken windows policing. But New Yorkers’ lips have also formed other words over the years that trigger responses that are just as polarizing: Terry stops, stop-question-and-frisk, and the shorthand stop-and-frisk itself. Imagine, for example, the daily fanfare for “New York’s Finest,” and consider the protracted dissonance felt within communities of color after the tragic events of September 11. Spending night after night expressing gratitude for a group of men and women who, at a moment’s notice, could exact unspeakable horrors on the communities they were praised for protecting. The incidents that did make it into the national consciousness — Amadou DialloEric Garner, and Kalief Browder — may have shocked the country, but it simply laid bare wounds that New Yorkers had been carrying for years. Those traumas have been pulled back into the foreground with the fear of a competitive Bloomberg campaign. As it was recently written in an impassioned open letter to communities of color by New York organizers and officials in advance of Super Tuesday, “the extent of harm, humiliation and terror that the Bloomberg administration’s daily racial profiling and police violence caused in Black, Latinx and other communities of color cannot be overstated.”

The figures have been parsed through ad-nauseam in recent years, proving the failure of the program to successfully meet its stated objectives throughout Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure. An exegesis of the program, however, will show that it was actually quite successful, and worked exactly as designed. With every stop, New York’s gilded class was able to imprint a painful reminder that no matter how hard you may fight, the city does not — and will never — actually belong to you. You can see it in nearly every tweet that cascades down the #mybloombergstory hashtag which, as described by Dr. Jacob Remes of New York University, is “filled with stories of harassment and worse from Muslim, Black, and Brown New Yorkers who lived through Bloomberg’s racist authoritarianism.”

In speaking to fellow New Yorkers who lived through the Bloomberg era, it’s apparent that this pain is still very much tangible for many of us, with deep, multigenerational harms that we are still recovering from and enduring. It has laid waste to our siblings, our friends and ourselves. 

Tiffany Caban, 32, Astoria, Queens

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It was in early 2002 when I was politicized and became more aware of differences in our communities. My parents grew up in the projects and my dad got a union gig, and we were able to move in a small home in Richmond Hill. I went to public school in a low-income neighborhood for elementary and junior high, but went to a private Catholic High School in Fresh Meadows in an entirely different neighborhood. That is where I could see the jarring different signs on what neighborhood looks like, and specifically what overpoliced neighborhoods look like as opposed to other neighborhoods. My best friends were constantly getting harassed or roughed up by the police, or had police officers in school and getting suspended. There’s a palpable difference to walking into a school where people feel free to move, free to exist, and don’t have those kinds of other stressors in their life.

When you look at places where we’re overpoliced and over surveilled, what we’re also talking about is a lack of resources to allow people to deal with their trauma and heal. So, trauma begets change, which begets instability, which begets violence. We’re quick to draw these surface-level conclusions about what happens in certain neighborhoods and not talk about what the root causes of violence are, and how we can tie that to trauma caused by state-sanctioned violence.

[As a public defender] you also see an overwhelming amount of young Black and brown men. But when we pick up those cases, you know who’s sitting in the courtroom? It’s the girlfriends and their wives and their children, and that disrupts and affects their lives in very significant ways. Whether it’s people that are scrounging up their last dollars for bail, people that are risking losing their housing or their job. A lot of times when we’re dealing with cases, people think that our biggest concern or fear is like, “Oh, God, I gotta make sure that I don’t end up with criminal records on this case,” or “I want the best legal outcome.” When, in reality, the lawyers are doing more social work or other services. Because the real purpose of the person that’s directly affected is something else that has to do with their living situation or their family, in terms of how destabilizing the arrest and the court appearances are for their lives. 

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I had a client who was charged with a misdemeanor, and he had been arrested a handful of times. So, the prosecutor was offering jail or probation on this misdemeanor sentence. We had this very real conversation where [the client] was like, “Ms. Caban, I don’t know. I think I might take the 45 days in jail because I will never last on probation, because these same cops are roughing me up every other day.”

It still happens every single day. A really easy place to see it happening is here in Queens with the loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Predominantly trans women of color are being stopped and arrested for existing and walking down the street. That is another iteration of stop-and-frisk. Nobody has ruled that statute unconstitutional, because we’re talking about people who are on the margins of the margin. Unfortunately, there is not enough political will behind it to have the organizing and movement that it took to get to where we were on stop-and-frisk, and being able to get it to the courts and have it ruled unconstitutional. 

We have consistently taken these stances without centering or allowing survivors or victims to lead, and instead said, “Hey, we’re going to do these really harmful things to our Black and brown communities that create the optics of safety for white wealthy folks, at the expense of actual safety of the hands of state-sanctioned violence for Black and brown people.”

Ryan Anderson, 34, Cambria Heights, Queens

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Until this day — whether I’m driving or whether I’m walking — when I see a NYPD officer my heart specifically skips a beat. I’m terrified. I usually move over and brake, no matter how fast I’m going.

The presence wasn’t as there as much where I grew up. But when I would go to 40 Projects [South Jamaica Houses] or certain parts…when you’re playing basketball, and the cops will just roll into the park and put everybody up against the fence and start asking you questions.

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We were walking down Jamaica Avenue [once] — this was senior year of high school. I was walking back from work. I would go to McDonald’s and then come home after work. Walking down the avenue myself — maybe two blocks away from Jamaica — two cops stopped me and asked me “where I was going.” “Sir, I just left work. I’m headed to the bus station. I’m headed home.” “Well, we’ve heard that there’s been some noises and some issues in the area. So we want to just check to make sure that you’re good.” They pushed me up against the wall and proceeded to search and, of course, I don’t have anything on me. The worst part about it is that there’s never an apology. You have to take it or you know what happens if you kick back. That’s when you end up going to holding [detention center], that’s when you may end up being folded — even if you are 100% clean.

It’s scary to say but I’ve hit double digits [in stops] — I’ll leave it at that.

Civil, [Age Not Disclosed] Bushwick, Brooklyn

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When you think about Harlem and Bedford–Stuyvesant, gentrification is clearly occurring in these areas. but you still see a semblance of the culture. Whereas like Bushwick, the culture was ate up within the span of that police presence. Just use the Puerto Rican Day parade as an example. It would go on until maybe 10, 11 [PM]. Now you won’t even hear nothing. Like, you will hear one horn beep. Block parties are not the same.

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One of my close friends’ son was born one day, and we went to celebrate around the corner at this Chinese restaurant-bar. There was a group of girls that my friend knew from the block…he’s just saying, “What up” or whatever. The cops come out — they’ve been tailing them — and then just start pressing us. They push all of us against the wall, start frisking us. One of the cops is like, shook. I can see he’s scared. I’m like, “This is how shit happens.” This guy has his hand on his gun, and they’re trying to tell them to leave the young girls alone. We were there for like, 20, 30 minutes.

[I’ve been in] uncomfortable situations where it’s me by myself being pressed by five cops. I’m late to go somewhere…and the line of question is like, they’re asking me about shit in the Bronx, even though I’m deep in Brooklyn. They took my ID, walked off for 20 minutes, and just seemed like they were trying to place me somewhere.

Candace Simpson, [Age Not Disclosed] Flatbush, Brooklyn

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I actually went to the same [high school] Bernie Sanders went to — [James] Madison. Madison was the kind of school where people came from all over. I was coming from Flatbush; my boyfriend at the time was coming from Canarsie; people were coming from East New York. So there’s this bus stop where the B7 and the B82 meet. We would all hang out and congregate right there. We would take the bus to like Utica-ish — where like the Wendy’s and the McDonald’s was — or we would take the B6 to the Junction.

One time we were coming from Madison and we ended up near Midwood High School. These cops — I don’t know if they were NYPD cops or if they were school safety agents because they wore the same uniforms — stopped us, and I was the only girl. There was like six of us. Then the cop was like, “Oh, can I see your student ID?” and we’re what — 15,16. This was before my understanding that interactions like that could become deadly. So, I was like, very bratty and very, you know, “I know my rights, my momma’s gonna call my lawyer.” In my mind, I’m thinking that I’m good, but the guys around me were kind of shook. Eventually, we showed the ID, and the cop was like, “You guys just match the description of someone we’re looking for.”

Multiple things are happening at once with the uptick of stop and frisk. That happens at the same time as major landscape changes for socializing for Black and brown youth. Empire [rolling rink in Brooklyn] doesn’t exist anymore, the movie theater at Kings Plaza doesn’t exist anymore. There are very few places where Black children can go and not be policed. What stop-and-frisk did to us over time, was it helped people to see groups of Black children out and wonder, “What y’all doin’?”…the places where we would go are being demolished, resold…our owners are being bought out. There are so many spaces that meant a lot to me as a teenager that don’t exist anymore. 

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[Ending stop-and-frisk?] That’s like asking people who were enslaved before and after the proclamation went out. Like, it’s not on the books anymore, but if we were to carry that analogy, people are still sharecropping. There’s still a disproportionate force of oppression on Black and brown communities. People say that stop-and-frisk ended as an official policy in 2017. I don’t feel a difference. If I feel a difference it’s because neighborhoods are changing.

My hope, is that we can really get to a place where all Black lives matter, and we don’t negotiate or sacrifice the most vulnerable among us. Because once we surrender and sacrifice someone, then the logic just becomes open, and it’s just a matter of time before it gets to you. So, just because you don’t have somebody who’s locked up doesn’t mean that you should not care.

Gregory Herrera, 30, Washington Heights, NY

[In the Early 2000s] cops stopping kids who were not in school for “truancy” was still a thing…I was absent a lot from school — pretty much most of my academic life for a variety of reasons like taking care of my younger siblings if we couldn’t get a babysitter, helping my mom do shit, or just because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom was like, “Fine, whatever, your grades are good, I don’t have to worry about that.” So if I had to go to the store or something it was very much like, “I’m going to run down to the store real quick and come back up fast, because if a cop stops you they have the right to come up to you.”…my sense was just like, “I don’t really want to come across cops. They stop kids for being truants and they’ll stick you in the back of a van.”

It must have been ’04, ’05. We had this, like, big bulky Hewlett-Packard computer and it had a virus. A [Puerto Rican] friend of mine from church was like, “Yeah, bring it over to my house. I’ll wipe it clean, delete the hard drive whatever, reinstall it fresh.” I was like, “Cool.” So I put it in a trash bag and just took it over to him…by J Hood Wright Park…like West of Broadway, a little bit past Fort Washington which, if you’re born or raised in the Heights, that’s the white people side of the Heights.

A couple days go by, I go get it. I must have made it like a block and a half…I noticed this like, pudgy, middle-aged, nondescript white guy. Then I hear, “Oh, what’s that?” and I’m so caught off on the question that I answered it. The next thing I know, he catches up to me and goes like, “Police, stop right there” and shoved me up against the wall. I’m so thrown off by everything that’s happening that I dropped the computer and it lands on my foot a little bit. I had some form of ID — eventually, he was like, “It’s just, you know, we’ve got reports of people stealing computers around here,” and then he walks away.

It was just terrifying, fast as hell. And it just made me just be like, “I got to be on guard for all types of motherfuckers,” because this guy was dressed regularly and he wasn’t dressed like a cop or anything. If I see [cops] somewhere I’m clocking where they are and paying attention to where they’re moving to, because I don’t want to be near them. I don’t want them to be near me.

There are still people that are being stopped, questioned and then frisked. So it affects my actual job [as a public defender] immensely. Several of my clients — the reason that they have criminal charges — are based on stop-and-frisk type interactions.

Check out 2020 primary election dates here.

Pop Smoke’s very New York rise

Originally published for Fader Magazine. Photos taken by Ibrahem Hasan.

On October 12, Rolling Loud — the self-identified “largest hip-hop festival in the world” — was scheduled to make a triumphant debut in rap mecca New York City. That Saturday morning, however, there was a change of plans: five acts had been removed from the lineup at the behest of the NYPD, who cited “public safety concerns” and local rappers’ alleged affiliations with “recent acts of violence citywide.”

The artists in question — 22Gz, Casanova, Sheff G, Don Q, and Pop Smoke — are at the forefront of New York’s bustling drill scene. With roots in Chicago, New York drill is an aggressive, youth-driven rap sound that frequently juxtaposes somber, refracted trap instrumentation with intense, live-wire lyricism, buoyed by the heaviness of the patented New York accent. Drill has been on the rise in the five boroughs for years, and dominated the city this summer.

No song better exemplifies the raw grit, energy, and reckless potential of a New York summer than Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party,” a street track that quickly shot to several million views on YouTube. Veering between taut, pithy phraseology and panoramic storytelling, the ominous opening melody made any occasion five times more lively regardless of the venue; to date, I’ve heard it played at a house party, brunch, the club, an Afrobeats concert, and on my block in East Flatbush. Once the track was supplemented by official remixes from people like Nicki Minaj, French Montana, and Skepta, it was indisputable: The summer belonged to an upstart who came onto the scene only about a year ago.

Despite his rapid ubiquity, Pop Smoke only found out the day before the festival that he wasn’t going to be able to perform at Rolling Loud. (Rolling Loud declined to comment, although they have publicly stated that they paid the banned artists their full booking fees and offered them spots at other iterations of Rolling Loud across the country.) “That was a bummer,” Pop Smoke tells me when we first meet. It’s ten days after Rolling Loud debacle; he was supposed to perform this evening at Powerhouse Live, the pre-party for local hip-hop station Power 105.1’s annual Powerhouse concert — but his set was again cancelled the day before, seemingly because of the NYPD’s intervention into Rolling Loud. “The radio knows not to say my name no more,” he says.

Pop Smoke’s very New York rise

This kind of censorship due to police interference isn’t a newfound phenomenon, even as it pertains to drill. In Chicago and London, the music has become another source of tension between law enforcement and the communities they are expected to serve, creating moral panics that are frequently debated in the public sphere. Chicago artists have consistently fought being linked to spikes in violence in the city’s South Side; in London, Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick said in a radio interview that “We have gangs who make drill videos and in those videos, they taunt each other. They say what they’re going to do to each other and specifically what they are going to do to who.”

British authorities went so far as to charge two artists for performing their own songs; years before drill’s current mainstream moment in New York, Flatbush’s own Bobby Shmurda was arrested in 2014 and eventually accepted a plea deal. At one press conference, NYPD Assistant Chief James Essig described the music of Shmurda and his friends as “almost like a real-life document of what they were doing on the street.” Casanova went on Instagram the morning the Rolling Loud cancellations were announced to express his frustration, typing, “I JUST WANNA LIVE. My last felony conviction was 2007. I lost everything I ever loved and I’m STILL losing.”

Pop Smoke’s life story is one of resilience, and not even the NYPD will deter him from claiming his title as King of the Summer. When we meet at St. Bartholomew’s Church after a photoshoot, I’m warned that he’s dealing with some “rough personal news” he isn’t willing to disclose, and that he may not be in the best of spirits. But by the time he approaches me, he possesses a cocksure demeanor and charm that matches nicely with his signature diamond-encrusted nameplate chain. With his Power 105.1 performance nixed, we go to dinner at Philippe Chow’s, his longtime friends Trav and Ace tagging along. “What’s your name? You like Starburst gummies?” he asks, smiling and hugging me before putting me into a cab.

Born Bashar Jackson, the 20-year-old Pop Smoke was raised in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, a southern corner of the borough with a predominantly West Indian presence. He grew up in a Panamanian household with a strong female presence and had an early love of sports, playing baseball, football and basketball. This natural aptitude for sports enabled Pop Smoke to go to prep school in Philadelphia at the age of 15 on a full scholarship — but trouble found him after about a year, and he returned back to his home turf.

“You can take the kid out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the kid,” he says. “I went to go get some food [in Philly]… these guys were in front of the corner store, I walk in to the spot, they said some crazy shit to me, and we just end up rumbling.” Returning to New York, his hoop dreams ended. “I thought I was gonna go to Howard, go over there and join a fraternity,” he says. “It wasn’t always rapping. Who would have thought I would be a rapper?”

Pop Smoke’s very New York rise

In just under a year, Smoke has had a career boom that many artists have never come close to accomplishing. He picked up a microphone for the first time while arranging the track “MPR” over a beat he discovered online by East London-based producer 808Melo, beginning a close collaborative relationship between the two. “I knew it hit because it got leaked, and when it leaked, everybody was jacking the song,” he says. “And when it hit I was like, Yo, we got something here, and I kept going.”

Since then, he has continued to set in motion a cadence of new music releases that have rippled throughout the New York street scene. Songs such as “Meet the Woo” and “Flexin’” all buzzed online, but it was “Welcome to the Party” that crested over and into the mainstream, bringing New York drill into the limelight.

Pop Smoke now finds himself at the cutting edge of a local rap movement largely composed of young men from outer-borough neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by various parts of the Black diaspora: East Flatbush, Canarsie, Jamaica, Brownsville. This environment has deeply informed their soundscape and aesthetic, building from a base that goes back to 2milly and GS9 with the “Milly Rock” and the “Shmoney Dance.”; lyrics by New York’s drill rappers reference not just the sets and neighborhoods they proudly represent, but the parlance affixed to the households they grew up in.

On “Meet the Woo,” Pop Smoke raps, “I turn that boy to a duppy” — a patois word for a malevolent spirit or ghost, whipping the phrase around with his distinct gravelly timbre. Even the moniker Pop Smoke is partially borne of his familial heritage; his grandfather gave him the nickname Poppa, and it stuck. The assumed surname Smoke came from the streets, where he was called “Smoke Oh Guap.” In his eyes, he says, there isn’t a distinction between one family and another.

When I ask him how his immediate family feels about his sudden fame, he looks around the table at our corner booth in the modern, bustling Beijing-style restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, pointing at his two boys. As we pick from platters of satay, lobster, prawns, and bok choy, they’ve been comfortably interjecting into our conversation and bantering about everything from music to parties to debates about eating ass. “This is my immediate family,” Pop Smoke says.

Pop Smoke’s very New York rise
Pop Smoke’s very New York rise

Having reciprocal experiences rooted in being part of an emerging class of predominantly first-generation, third culture children, it’s understandable — if not expected — that the through line to New York’s drill runs strongest not from Chicago, despite having deep respect for their musical forebears, but the UK. Like their peers in London, New York drill rappers are generating a musical output that owes to their cultural lineage, while also holding a magnifying glass up to the streets where they grew up. But for Pop Smoke, associations with drill, while itself a diverse soundbase, overly simplify what he considers his art to be. “I make gangsta music,” he clarifies. “Bitch I’m a thot, get me lit. That’s not drill. Y’all know what it is, but that’s not drill. When you think of drill it’s like, Pull up we airing it out.

The “air it out” aesthetic, as he refers to it, can nonetheless be heard in songs of his like “Flexin’,” where he pushes air out of his chest in a rapid, aggressive cadence that can feel like the lyrical analog of a rapid-fire weapon. But he easily weaves from that approach to talking about fashion, women, and money in a manner that comfortably creates a linkage between him and New York’s most infamous antagonist of the early aughts, 50 Cent – his song “PTSD” sounds, at points, almost eerily akin to the cadence of the South Jamaica, Queens, bred rapper.

The life cycle for each new Pop Smoke song starts with him stepping in the booth and defining the vibe; he laid the foundation for “Welcome to the Party” in around 30 minutes. It’s a skill that has emerged from his natural banter; at dinner, before discussing a recent sexual encounter with a woman at a local party, he leans back into his seat and, with a tenderness in his voice, simply says, “Yo, different, bro. Different.”

“Everything I make just be like, vibes,” he explains. “Yesterday I made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I just made it cuz I seen a girl go like that” – mimicking the motion made popular by Houston-based rapper Megan the Stallion – “talking about ‘Drive the boat.’ About to drive the boat with the liquor. So I’m like, hey, I just made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I gotta have some inspiration. That’s when the best music comes up for me.” Regarding the track “Dior,” he simply states, “When I made that I had just got on Dior.” I teasingly reply that he was decked out in Gucci earlier today, to which he quickly replies, “Double G, niggas know there’s only one of me,” lyrics from his brief album cut “Hawk Em.”

As Pop Smoke gets bigger, and with the NYPD already deeming him a danger, he may find himself juxtaposed against the rise and spectacular fall of Tekashi69, the most recent superstar come out of Brooklyn. But there’s a world of difference between them: Tekashi offered a curated narrative, accelerating quickly into cultural relevance by performing the allure of a lifestyle that he only ever participated in by proxy, while Pop Smoke is parsing apart a lived experience highly relevant to a homegrown fan base that’s invested in protecting him from the authorities’ obstructive power.

Pop Smoke’s life — from his songs down to his every interaction — is an exercise in discerning what can be safely shared under constantly surveilling eyes, even as he engages in the many indulgences of a young cis adult male with minimal impulse control (despite it being 2019, him and his friends haven’t received the memo on the abundant use of “no homo” and “pause” in casual speech). Take the title of his album, Meet the Woo: Over the past year, he has replied slyly when asked what “The Woo” stands for. One day it’s about being flossy, the other it’s purely a dance move, akin to 22Gz’ Blixky Twirl (a quick glance at the Youtube comments section from lifelong New Yorkers will make it plain that there’s more to the dance than just a sequence of steps). Over the course of our conversation, when I begin to mention how most born-and-bred New Yorkers (especially from the outer boroughs) know that such references are to real things, he looks on with a slight twinkle in his eye and simply replies, “That’s a real thing?”

Pop Smoke says that he’s relatively unconcerned about his threshold for exposure, but still talks cryptically about the lifestyle that he and his friends grew into. “We ain’t have nothing else to do,” he says. “What’s already understood don’t gotta be explained. We been there done that already.” He points out that he’s getting money now: “Beef — talking to people that don’t really have anything going for themselves — doesn’t really help you get any money. It’s just potential bail that you have to pay. Know what I’m saying? We’ve been there already, we not trying to go back to that.”

Still, that hasn’t eliminated their interactions with the authorities. He points out the vast swath of luxury cars that he and his crew have acquired, recalling some extreme measures that he and his crew took to make it to a performance with French Montana in the Bronx: “That nigga did some shit, bro,” Smoke says. “We got there on time though,” Trav responds. “We got there before French!” Pop readily confirms, putting on his best French Montana impersonation. “He said, Pop! What y’all up to, bruh?’ I said, Nigga, if you wanna know what we just did just to get here? He said, Hey man, y’all niggas crazy, man. Y’all niggas just crazy. Park that shit up, get in the car.” Pop chuckles, adding, “I love French.”

Pop Smoke’s very New York rise

The respect seems mutual. French, who says he’s always watching for new talent coming out of his hometown, has been one of the major cosigns as Pop Smoke has risen. “He was buzzing out of Brooklyn and it sparked my radar, same way it did with the whole GS9 movement,” French tells me. “I just remember how I felt when Jadakiss heard my song and jumped on it. I always want to be able to do that for other up and coming rappers like he did for me.” He adds: “When you make it out of New York, you can make it out of anywhere. When you make it out before anyone really knows you, that says a lot about you.”

Earlier, over our crustacean-filled dinner, French graced the table with his virtual presence, FaceTiming with Pop to briefly discuss a potential track with “Welcome to the Party” producer and frequent Pop collaborator 808MeloBeats. After promising to send him a pack of beats, Pop asks French about a far more pressing concern. “You told Drake about me? What he said? He said he jacking it?” he asks. “Hell yeah!” French replies from Los Angeles, where he was attending Drakes 33rd birthday party. (French gifted Drake a $175,000 diamond-encrusted bracelet). “That’s love,” Smoke says back. “You already kicked it off. If you and Drake get on some shit…”

A feature from someone like Drake would put Pop Smoke on a different path moving forward. He exploded on the scene without much more than the range of his vocal inflections and the army of friends behind him in every video. “That was my goal — do it by yourself, beat the odds,” he says. “Cuz when you do it by yourself, it hit different. I always knew, Imma be a millionaire. I always knew I was gonna have bread. I always was good with knowing how to talk, knowing how to hustle.”

Pop Smoke takes out his phone and shows me a video clip of his performance in Albany on Instagram. “The love that I’m getting…where we come from, I never really felt love like that.” The remainder of his Instagram, though, is surprisingly sparse for a Gen Z artist, primarily serving as a promotional vehicle for his work. Having previously said that the internet is “federale shit,” he clarifies, “I’m not into what comes with it. The internet is fire.”

Part of this reticence may be influenced by his first brush with online notoriety, which came in the form of an infamous video that went viral on WorldStarHipHop in 2012. Titled “Young Crip Gets Slapped by NY Bloods After Taking Out Beads,” the video shows a baby-faced, 13-year-old Pop Smoke being taken advantage of by people in East Flatbush who used the power of public humiliation against him. Almost seven years later, the first upload on his official YouTube channel remains eight seconds long, and is simply titled “POP SMOKE SMACKS OPP SHAPOW!!!!” In part of the description, it states, “Now tables turned and Pop Smoke shows the Blood member how you really shapow somebody.”

As the evening comes to a close, we’re approached by our server with a modest request; the man’s son, who also works at the restaurant, wants to take a photo with Pop Smoke. Rattling off “PTSD,” “Scenario,” and “Dior,” as his favorite songs, he earnestly proclaims that his day doesn’t start until he has a chance to ride his bicycle while listening to Meet the Woo.

That Saturday night, Meek Mill stepped out onto the Powerhouse stage at New Jersey’s Prudential Center; during his set, he brings out Young M.A, one recent New York rapper to enjoy freedom from the NYPD. But the energy completely changes when Meek manages to sneak Pop Smoke to perform both “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party.” With the entire stadium in lockstep, Pop Smoke and his crew perform his summer smash for the greater New York area’s last major festival for the rest of the year. The message is clear: the NYPD can do what they want, but New York City isn’t leaving Pop Smoke’s side.

Ousman Darboe could be deported any day. His story is a common one for black immigrants.

Originally published for Vox, with photography done by Desiree Rios.

When public defender Sophia Gurulé tried to visit her client in ICE detention in June, she was hit with a roadblock: His facility in Bergen County, New Jersey, was under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak. She wouldn’t be able to talk to her client in person for the next three weeks.

For 25-year-old Ousman Darboe, daily communication with his legal representation is essential. In May, he lost his removal proceedings case in immigration court. Now, he is pending deportation to his birth country of Gambia.

While he was quarantined in a unit with little air ventilation in the middle of summer — his family a two-hour bus commute away in the Bronx — Gurulé has been fervently at work on an appeal. She is exploring all options, including sending a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release. This is the final chance she has to help keep his family together. Darboe has never held his daughter, now 17 months old, outside of a detention facility.

Like many ofthe approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, Darboe came to the country as a child. He was 6 years old when his parents brought him and his three older siblings to New York in 2001, settling in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

Navigating life in a strict Muslim home, where he helped care for his younger siblings, was occasionally at odds with his assimilation as a kid in Fordham Heights. But Darboe worked quickly to fit in. He shed his accent and learned English. He played basketball and often kept quiet. And, much to his family’s disapproval, he sometimes cut school, often to avoid the heavy violence and policing on campus.

Portrait of Ousman Darboe smiling.
Ousman Darboe in 2017, when he was 23 years old.

Based on the color of his skin alone, it’s not a surprise that Darboe went on to face numerous interactions with law enforcement as a teenager and young adult — a series of stops, alleged misidentifications, and arrests that led him to be locked up in Bergen County.

According to the Bureau of Justice of Statistics, black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents, and when stopped, police are twice as likely to threaten or use force against them. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, these statistics are even starker in New York City: Black and Latinx people were the targets of four out of every five reported stops between 2014 and 2017, and black and Latinx people were more likely to have force used against them.

But as many immigrant justice advocates will tell you, if being black makes you a police target, then being black and undocumented in a poor neighborhood will make you vulnerable to surveillance, punishment, and exile. Darboe wasn’t born of privileged social class or with means to a prestigious education; he did not fit the “exceptional immigrant” model preferred by US immigration policy. The odds of Darboe living not only a free life, but any life at all in this country, were stacked against him from the moment he stepped on US soil.

Darboe has instead found himself inwhat criminal justice reform activists call the prison-to-deportation pipeline, a coded system that works to funnel black and Latinx immigrants from the criminal court system into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody, to the immigration court system, and ultimately back to their nations of birth — with very little recourse or space for adjudication.

For example, low-level crimes such as marijuana possession are lumped into the offense of “drug trafficking” in immigration court — even if it’s recognized as a misdemeanor in the criminal courts — mandating automatic deportation without any leeway for a judge to consider an individual’s circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result of this one-size-fits-all policy, deportations over drug convictions of any sort increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2012.

Peel back the numbers further, and black immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of criminal-based deportations. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which reviewed data on immigrants from African and Caribbean countries from the Department of Homeland Security Yearbook and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 76 percent of black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent of all immigrants. Despite making up only 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the US, more than 20 percent of people facing deportation on criminal grounds are black.

“There’s a particular intersection of vulnerability — immigrants in general are vulnerable, and there’s often poverty and racial aspects to their vulnerability as well,” said Jodi Ziesemer, director of the Immigrant Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive free legal services and advocacy. “Black and undocumented immigrants are at particular risk because they’re targeted racially by a lot of our institutions … while being also targeted for ICE and enforcement actions.”

As a young quiet kid, Darboe would have never guessed that his existence in the US — and in the Bronx in particular — would put him on a trajectory of altercations with law enforcement, eventual incarceration, and possible deportation. Darboe’s sister Adama said her brother once told her, “I came to this country thinking it would be better for me, but they’re actually against me.”

Webster Avenue in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.
Webster Avenue in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx. It was here where Darboe, at age 16, was arrested and charged with marijuana possession after being stopped and frisked by police.

A path that began with police targeting

Darboe’s first interaction with police came at age 16: On June 25, 2010, he was falsely accused of stealing headphones at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Situated just around the corner from the famed specialized high school Bronx High School of Science, DeWitt has a history of police patrolling the hallways and metal detectors that caused hour-long delays, a system that left students feeling “like inmates,” according to a 2005 New York Times report. It was a situation so toxic that more than 1,500 students marched over to the Department of Education at the beginning of the school year.

When Darboe was at the school five years later, not much had changed. He told the court earlier this year that there were a lot of gang wars, fights, and cuttings. “DeWitt Clinton was a harsh place to go to school, because most of the time there’s gang wars — there’s weapons being found at school,” Darboe testified. “Basically nobody went to class.” Gurulé says Darboe witnessed police being given free rein to stroll the school, on top of the standard school security that already existed on campus. (DeWitt Clinton High School has not responded to Vox’s request for comment).

DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Darboe’s first encounter with police was as a student on campus.

His eldest sister, Adama, in contrast, went to Marble Hill High School for International Studies, a smaller school with an above-average reputation and an emphasis on dedicating resources to college preparation. Adama tells Vox these schooling differences significantly impacted the siblings’ trajectories, placing Darboe in an environment that put him under police scrutiny, and with a friend group that grew accustomed to being viewed as criminals.

Though Darboe was quickly found not to have stolen the headphones and his case was dismissed, the incident would prove to be the first in a long string of interactions with police. According to court documents, Darboe said that while the kids in Fordham Heights were “not the best of influences,” they would often be “attacked by the police officers” because the neighborhood was simply known to be violent.

Broken windows” policing was common in neighborhoods with large black and Latinx immigrant populations such as Darboe’s area of the Bronx. By focusing on low-level crimes in so-called unkempt neighborhoods — with vandalism, loitering, and drug offenses — police departments theorized they could prevent bigger crimes from happening there. In the 1990s, police in cities like New York took this practice one step further and instead of waiting for people to commit misdemeanors, they enacted “stop-and-frisk” — stopping, questioning, and frisking anyone who looked suspicious.

According to a 2013 study by the Vera Institute of Justiceat least half of all recorded stops by police in New York City involved people between the ages of 13 and 25, and more than 40 percent of young people who’ve been stopped said they have been stopped nine times or more — with nearly half reporting that threats or physical violence were used against them. Broken windows and stop-and-frisk policing created an environment where kids from certain neighborhoods, and often of a certain skin color, were repeatedly profiled as criminals. In fact, in 2013, a US district judge in New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and ordered police to stop the practice in the Bronx specifically, because of the way it targeted young black and Latinx men.


But that ruling — which outlawed stop-and-frisk but didn’t put an end to broken windows policing — came several years after Darboe was already caught up in the system.

In October 2010, four months after being falsely accused of stealing the headphones, Darboe was fingered for stealing a purse and was adjudicated as a youthful offender. When asked in court why he stole it, Darboe said that he didn’t have any school supplies, or a book bag, and he couldn’t ask his parents because he knew they didn’t have the money. “I felt, I felt bad because I felt like I had to take [a] drastic measure to get the stuff that I needed,” he said.

Three months later, in the following January, he was stopped and frisked on Webster Avenue — just down the block from his childhood home —and charged with marijuana possession, but was only found guilty of disorderly conduct. And in March 2012, he was charged for cellphone theft, which landed him in Rikers Island — a jail complex infamous for its excessive use of violence in inmate discipline — as a violation of his previous youthful offender agreement over the purse theft.

During his time at Rikers, having just turned 18 and awaiting his cellphone theft hearing, Darboe spent nearly 10 months total in solitary confinement for fighting, and five of those months he says he was not even aware he was able to step outside for an hour a day and get fresh air.

When he was finally sentenced in July 2013, Darboe was sent to Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York to serve time for both petty theft charges; nine months later, he was released on parole — meaning that he spent more time in pre-trial detention awaiting his sentencing than his actual sentence. His disappearance was so abrupt that his longtime friend from high school, Lashalle Poston, now his wife, initially thought he had left the city. “At first I thought, African parents, when they get in trouble, they send their kids to Africa,” Poston tells Vox. “He just disappeared.”

Darboe’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Darboe’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Darboe’s immigration attorney, Sophia Gurulé.
Darboe’s attorney, Sophia Gurulé.

Despite having spent the latter half of his teen years being in and out of facilities, a youth offender record is not a criminal record; it is automatically sealed and does not have to be reported as a criminal conviction. “It wouldn’t bar him from applying for things,” Gurulé said, referring to documentation that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable to deportation. “A judge can be, ‘I see you got arrested for doing that and I don’t like that, that makes me think you’re a bad person,’ but it doesn’t bar him for applying.”

So upon his release in 2014, at age 20, Darboe took steps to make a fresh start. He moved back in with his parents; started dating Poston, who served as his support system during his incarceration; and began attending Getting Out and Staying Out, a Rikers reentry program for young adult men.

But despite his best intentions, staying out would prove to be not so easy.

The pipeline from juvenile to immigration court

In September 2014, less than six months after Darboe’s release, a neighbor in his parents’ building was walking when she had her gold chains robbed from her neck. Given that he was recently paroled, Darboe was identified as a person of interest by the NYPD. Darboe says on the day of the incident he was at Getting Out and Staying Out (the organization was only able to confirm his regular participation but not his specific whereabouts that day, according to court documents).

When police searched his belongings, they were unable to find any items that tied him to the description given by the neighbor. However, the victim identified him in a police lineup, both recognizing him as a resident in the building and perceiving him to be the assailant: “She thinks that he did it because it was a ‘big black man,’” Adama says, “and [that’s who] Ousman was.”

Darboe was charged with multiple offenses — three counts of robbery plus assault, criminal possession of stolen property, and harassment. He was now considered an adult. At his arraignment, he entered an initial plea of not guilty and was released on bail after 60 days.

But his release was turbulent: He had multiple police interactions for a variety of unrelated charges, such as gun possession and possession of a false check, both of which were dismissed (they were committed by an associate of his, according to court documents). He then landed back in Rikers because the robbery charges were a violation of his parole. While in jail, he was accused of illegally possessing a razor, an offense of which he was acquitted.

Worn down from being in and out of detainment and solitary confinement — and fearful that the NYPD, in its persistence to obtain evidence, would generate a second witness willing to corroborate the alleged robbery story to better their own circumstances — Darboe made an about-face in February 2017 and took a plea deal of one count of felony robbery for time served. According to court documents, Darboe said he took the deal because he was disappointed in himself — not because he had committed the crime, which he maintains he did not, but because of his past. “I had to blame myself for my previous cases, because if I would have never caught [charges in] those previous robberies, I would have never been a target for [the gold chains] robbery.”

While pleading under duress is a common scenario for black men with extended stays in pre-trial detention, doing so has significant implications for immigrants.

Five months later, Darboe was at his parents’ apartment in their new Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge when ICE knocked on the door. Even though his recent case dismissals meant he was supposedly no longer under threat of incarceration, ICE officers gained entry to the apartment saying they were police, under the pretense of having a warrant for someone else in the neighborhood, says Gurulé. This tactic is reportedly used by some agents to get immigrants to let them in a residence: ICE officers announce that they’re law enforcement and that they have a “warrant,” even though the warrant is only administrative and not signed by a judge.

Once inside, agents proceed to make arrests after they validate that the person in the home is the same person who may be already flagged on their watchlist as a target, with a particular emphasis on undocumented persons. (ICE has not responded to Vox’s request for comment on its arrest or warrant process, or Darboe specifically, but an ICE spokesman denied to Documented in 2018 that they pose as local law enforcement; however, he said ICE “may use the universally recognized ‘POLICE’ when initially making contact with someone during a field operation.”)

The Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.
The corner in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx where Darboe was arrested by ICE agents in 2017.

This is the kind of tactic advocates and lawyers warned immigrants to guard against during the recent ICE raids announced by the Trump administration. But Darboe didn’t know that the warrant wasn’t signed by a judge, and that he was thus protected by the Fourth Amendment from having to open the door. He was quickly taken away by ICE agents to the Hudson County Detention Center in New Jersey.

Darboe was detained on July 31, 2017 — the same day he was scheduled to have his forged check charge dismissed. A handful of days later, his girlfriend Poston discovered she was pregnant with their first child — a girl, Sanai, to be born the following April. She wouldn’t be ableto visit Darboe for four months.

Outside of transferring facilities to Bergen County, Darboe has not left ICE custodysince July 2017, having been denied bond after an extended delay due to “dangerousness,” according to a judge in the NYC immigration court. This is despite having only one adult conviction and significant roots in the city: He has eight siblings and parents who, at this point, are all legal permanent residents or have birthright citizenship. He also married Poston in Hudson County Detention in December 2017.

Poston’s initial I-130 petition, the first step to authenticate and establish a record of marriage in the visa application process, was denied by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), stating that the couple did not have joint assets such as property or bank accounts, and therefore the marriage was possibly fraudulent. (When asked for comment, USCIS told Vox it doesn’t comment on specific cases.)

“They tried to tell me that we didn’t submit enough evidence, that my relationship wasn’t real,” Poston tells Vox. “Me pushing out a kid in labor for 29 hours wasn’t enough?”

While the decision was ultimately overturned on appeal, Gurulé points out that the logic behind the authentication is classist. She notes that in tandem with ICE, the USCIS “has become a form of law enforcement in their own way,” expanding from an organization intended to manage benefits and services for immigrants to an investigation service of its own.

The delays in the spousal visa process extended Darboe’s detention by ICE for another year. In the meantime, Poston has navigated pregnancy and early motherhood alone.

Laws make the case for the “exceptional immigrant” — but don’t account for the systemic hardships immigrants face

In 1996, the Clinton administration signed into law two key pieces of legislation: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which both served to retroactively tie immigration status to criminalization. Congress expanded what fell under its “aggravated felonies” classification when it came to deportable offenses, and standard deportation protocol could now be circumvented for “fast-track” removal proceedings. (Under the Trump administration, for example, an undocumented immigrant who cannot prove over two years of residency is eligible for “fast-track” proceedings.)

Deportable offenses — previously, murder, drugs, and firearms trafficking — now included nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors, such as theft, filing a false tax return, illegal entry in and of itself, or failing to appear in court. During the Bush administration, the largest increases in deportations were of undocumented immigrants convicted of traffic violations: 43,000 total during his last five years in office.

Even in the Obama era, immigration detention and deportations rates continued to rise astronomically: From2009 to 2015, the administration engaged in over 1 million “interior” removals — excluding those who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border — a rate that was nearly double that of the prior administration. According to a New York Times’ analysis of internal government records, two-thirds of the deportation cases during the Obama administration involved immigrants who were either convicted of minor infractions or had not yet been convicted of a crime.

Obama also played into the “good vs. bad immigrant” schism that has helped fuel hostility toward immigrants in this country: His infamous “Felons, not Families” speech kicking off the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program failed to reconcile immigration policy with the systemic surveilling and incarceration issues that plague people of color; he implied there is no scenario in which a person selected for deportation could be both a felon and part of a family.

President Obama meets with young immigrants, known as DREAMers.
President Obama meets with young immigrants, known as DREAMers, in the Oval Office of the White House, on February 4, 2015.

The “exceptional immigrant” paradigm was further reinforced by immigration reform that only emphasized pathways to citizenship for young immigrants who exhibit “good moral character.” Policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals established a temporary deferred status via a rubric that is difficult for many young immigrants to meet: The college-bound DREAMer, or undocumented immigrant in the armed services with a spotless police record, doesn’t represent the lived reality of many young immigrants. According to the United States Department of Education, 54 percent of undocumented youth earn a high school diploma, and only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates enroll in a higher education institution — far fewer successfully graduate with a degree.

“A spotlight on ‘exceptional’ black immigrants often erases and makes invisible the lived experience of black immigrants who experience police brutality, state surveillance, poverty, and workplace discrimination, among other things,” says Nekessa Opoti, a communications strategist at the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy organization comprised of black immigrants.

Protestors march against the news that the Obama administration plans to forcefully carry out deportations.
Protesters in Washington, DC, after the Obama administration announced its deportation plans for undocumented immigrants in 2015.

This is a plight that Darboe knows very well: He was not a perfect student. His case does not make for an exceptional immigrant soundbite. It’s easy to look at Darboe’s rap sheet and dismiss him as someone who has continually erred, particularly as a teen, and is therefore not entitled to sympathy.

This is the fundamental shortcoming of the emphasis on “model minority” narratives: They lack space for the acceptance of a world in which an immigrant lived a “regular” life, especially one that’s subject to heavy police surveillance. Attending an over-policed high school where students were constantly under suspicion, living in a neighborhood where the color of his skin was enough for police to stop him, Darboe had little chance of being seen as a model citizen.

He certainly wouldn’t be given much of a chance to grow up and turn his life around; he wouldn’t even be seen as worthy of such an opportunity.

His daughter, he said in immigration court earlier this year, “helps me feel that I got something to fight for, that I got something to go to, that … I really got to stop doing what I was doing my previous years as a teenager. Now I got to mature, not only for me, but only to be a better example for my daughter.”

Darboe’s youthful offenses — pilfering a cellphone and a purse as a teenager — are far from the actions of MS-13 villains trotted out by the Trump administration to justify strict immigration policy. But such indiscretions are much more common reasons for being removed from this country than any salacious violence.

Even sanctuary cities are limited in protecting immigrants from ICE

Even when there are laws in place to ostensibly help immigrants understand the criminal court process, they can fail. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. Kentucky that criminal defenders must ask their clients about their immigration status so they can inform them of the possible deportation consequences of a guilty plea before sentencing.

“That should happen,” Ziesemer says. But because courts are often backed up and public defenders often have massive caseloads, “I think there’s a lot of pressure on both ends that make that not a perfect system and … are not super protective of due process rights,” she says.

This gap in due process even happens in places like New York City, which have reputations as “sanctuary cities” and are supposed to limit their cooperation with ICE. But as the Intercept reports, ICE has evaded sanctuary rules by using NYPD fingerprint records to send letters to immigrants arrested — usually for low-level misdemeanor offenses — asking them to come into the agency’s Manhattan offices. In the cases of two immigrants who complied and went down to the office — neither of whom had open removal orders against them or criminal convictions — both were detained.

As explained by Albert Saint Jean, the New York organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, no matter how noncompliant a city administration vows to be, broken windows policing serves as a feeder system for ICE.

“If you’re doing heavy policing in black neighborhoods in NYC, guess what? Undocumented people live in those neighborhoods too. When you’re policing heavily black and brown communities, that’s where the bulk of our immigrant community and undocumented community live. So in essence, every time these people get fingerprinted, every time these things happen … ICE gets notified.”

Community activist Dennis Flores patrols his neighborhood for ICE raids.
A community activist patrols the heavily Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York, for police harassment and ICE raids in 2017.

Subway fare evasion is one of the top reasons that both Ziesemer and Saint Jean say their New York clients have been flagged for immigration purposes. In 2018, 90 percent of those arrested for this crime were reported to be people of color. This will only continue with Gov. Cuomo’s announced plan to expand the police force dedicated to fare evasion from 30 cops at 15 key New York City stations to 500 officers across 100 stations and bus stops.

Ziesemer says she has a client who is Garifuna from Honduras who got ticketed for having an open container in the Bronx. “If he wasn’t an immigrant, he would have paid a small fine and that would have been the end of it,” she says. “But because that got routed into the immigration system, he got picked up and has been detained for over six months.”

Detained immigrants have little recourse against deportation

When immigrants are detained, Ziesemer says, “there’s no obligation for ICE to bring them in front of a court, for them to seek bond. There’s no appointed attorney, there’s very little recourse to getting out of detention on a sort of pre-trial basis.” It’s called “civil detention,” she says, “but in reality, these people in Bergen County and all these other jails, they’re literally housed alongside people who have been convicted of crimes. Immigrants really do fall down a black hole when they’re detained.”

Some detained immigrants are allowed video testimony, which still isn’t standing before a judge and advocating for their own character. This has increasingly become the default for immigration courts around the country, according to Gurulé, and organizations have been suing over the violation of people’s due process.

ICE agents conduct an arrest.
ICE agents arrest a man in a 2017 raid in a photo released by the agency. Under President Trump, ICE enforcement has been on the rise.

One exception to the “black hole” norm was the high-profile detention of black immigrant 21 Savage — born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — in February. The rapper was detained by Atlanta ICE agents days after criticizing the agency on The Tonight Show. While ICE claimed Savage was an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who came to the US as a teen and overstayed his visa, he had been living in Atlanta since he was seven. The incident was a shocking moment for many people, highlighting the power of ICE, and disrupting the image for many of what an undocumented immigrant could look like — black and famous.

Fortunately for 21 Savage, he had hefty legal support and the backing of Jay-Z to help prevent being buried in ICE’s system. However, most black immigrants do not have access to the resources afforded to celebrities. In Darboe’s case, his access to legal representation was courtesy of a New York City Council-funded initiative to protect low-income immigrants facing deportation called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, of which Gurulé’s firm, the Bronx Defenders, is a part.

“I would say more than half the asylum cases that I’ve gone for, they were people that you could see a pattern of police harassment,” says Saint Jean of his work as an organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration in NYC. “And the judges don’t look at it from that context. They look at it as ‘this person is a troublemaker.’”

Countless immigration activists do the work of trying to place these clients with proper legal representation, which can sometimes feel nearly impossible, with lawyers wanting to get nowhere near immigration cases that involve rap sheets. In Darboe’s case, when Poston testified that her husband had grown past his youth offenses, the prosecutor replied, “talk is cheap,” asking Poston, “What if he gets violent with you or your child?” even though Darboe has no record of violent offenses.

“[I think the judge] feels like, all black women go through that, and you’ll just be one more, and it’s fine … The system is helping you, you don’t need no other help from no man,” says Poston. “The system is actually not that goddamn easy.”

Poston has had to experience this firsthand. In the time that she has worked to advocate for her husband, obtaining Gurulé as his public defender, and attending all his necessary court dates, she temporarily lost a job and has settled into a shelter with their daughter.

Attorney Sophia Gurulé with Ousman’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Gurulé (left) and Poston. “No empathy, compassion, no sense of justice, nothing,” Gurulé says of immigration judges when they preside over cases like Darboe’s.

“These judges see his kind of contact with the criminal legal system, and all reason and empathy flies out the door,” Gurulé says of her client Darboe. “No empathy, compassion, no sense of justice, nothing.”

If Darboe is deported, he will be excised from his community, family, and daughter, whom he may never see grow up. His emotional and mental health would also likely take a significant hit; deportees often suffer from depression and social isolation. Then there is Gambia, where the government is still working to stabilize society after a 20-year regime of human rights abuses left the country with high unemployment rates and in bankruptcy.

In the meantime, Darboe continues to wait. The mumps outbreak in Bergen County is over, and his appeal date is scheduled for October 3. He is relying on his Islamic faith to keep his spirit strong. He and his family know, though, that they must brace for the worst. After his two years in detention, they must come to terms with what has been the fate of many undocumented immigrants before him.

Meet Shenseea, the Singer Who’s Causing a Stir in the Dancehall Community

Originally published for Teen Vogue.

It’s a rainy day in Soho, and Miss Lily’s is filled to the brim — both with people and decor, described by the owners as inspired by “West Indian diaspora.” The vibrant interior of the venue features checkered floors vinyl booths throughout, and walls affixed with a bevy album covers spanning “50 years of Jamaican music history.”

No chronicling of Jamaican popular music would be accurate without including dancehall — a genre that originated in the late 70s in Kingston as a shift from reggae into physical dance halls: spaces for large numbers of the working-class population to hear music via portable sound systems, that would evolve and change with technology and artistic needs in the genre. The early class of dancehall stars includes legends such as Yellowman and the oft-sampled Sister Nancy; the musical style would expand from a niche to a national staple by the 1990s, crossing over to US markets courtesy of Jamaican diasporas, and ultimately taking the charts by storm: Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Lady Saw, and Sean Paul all became household names to anyone who watched MTV.

Making her own mark in said history is singer, DJ, and singjay, Shenseea (pronounced ˈs(H)en,ˈsee,ˈēə) born Chinsea Lee, arriving at Miss Lily’s in all white. After premiering her first single with Interscope Records, “Blessed,” she simply asked one question: “Is it a vibe?” The answer in the room was a resounding “yes” — but more importantly, so was the case from her fans — the music video received over 2 million hits in just under two days, a wildly enthusiastic response from her #ShenYeng fanbase and just a sign of things to come.

In the months since the release, Shenseea’s single has made waves in the American music scene, peaking at Number 2 on Billboard’s Reggae digital sales chart and getting the eye of chart-topping crossover stars such as Cardi B. The distinctive opening trills of the song – Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, ah – have become lovingly mimicked by fans. If the initial reception is any harbinger of things to come, Shenseea truly is blessed and quickly rising to the occasion.

“At the moment, I’m trying to infuse my dancehall genre with pop music, but at the same time I cannot do it straight,” she tells Teen Vogue about blending her Jamaican patois with mainstream American lyricism.“So what I’m trying to do is … I still have my tone of voice and everything, but just try to change a majority of the lines, of the words, and how I express certain things that I want to say, just so you guys can understand even more.”

The language hurdle is a delicate balance that she has taken great pains to identify in her music. “I still don’t want to leave my home genre, hence why I try to mix them as much as possible,” cheekily pointing out “and I’m literally from the Caribbean so I don’t see it as a crime.”

There was also a mixed reaction over the opening scene of the “Blessed” video (directed by Riveting Entertainment, who also worked on Tyga’s “Taste” and Chris Brown’s “Party”), which panned to a vista of her in bed with another woman – prompting discussion of Shenseea’s sexual identity. When asked about the nature of the scene, she slyly demurred on social media, “it’s my friend and we just came home from a party — remember, best friends have sleepovers too … just for her safety she slept over.”

It’s an interesting moment for Shenseea to find herself in, as Jamaica and dancehall have established a hypervisible reputation for having issues with the LGBTQ community. There has been increasing work toward carving out inclusive spaces within dancehall with organizations such as WE Change JamaicaJ-FLAG, and CONNEK. And over the last two decades, the conversation has evolved with key moments like Beenie Man, the “King of the Dancehall,” apologizing for homophobic lyrics in 2016. This year, Buju Banton, who, not long after his release from prison, put out a statement expressing his remorse for releasing his infamous homophobic “Boom Bye Bye” song, and declaring that it would not be available for streaming or purchase.

On Shenseea’s end, she previously declared her open support to the LGBTQ community during 2018 pride to her follower base on Instagram of 1.7 million. And her recent highly-circulated move on “Blessed” has received the qualified co-sign of Jaevion Nelson, the executive director of J-FLAG, on Facebook.

As we spoke while she was preparing for BET Awards weekend, she remained undeterred. “I’m not trying to emulate anyone’s trajectory,” she says, opting to be a trailblazer of her own. Sheensea sees herself as apart of how the new crossover dancehall sound should be defined from an authentic Jamaican perspective, as opposed to the various white artists that have entered the space in the American markets.

She has good reason to feel that way: At just 22 years old, the Kingston native and young mother of Afro-Carribean and Korean descent who first started singing in the church has grown from a club promoter and bottle service girl to the unofficial “Princess of Dancehall.” (the current Queen of dancehall title has been reserved for Spice, a trailblazing artist in her own right). Having left college for financial reasons, she gained an early following on Facebook, singing original songs and covers with a heavy reggae inflection akin to Tanya Stephens, before veering into a more appealing dancehall sound.

“When I heard my first song (“Jiggle Jiggle”) play for the first time, I was still doing promotional work,” she says. Since then, she has gone on to score major hits, from the breakout collaboration with the currently-incarcerated dancehall star Vybz Kartel (who she has identified as a lyrical influence), “Loodi,” to the bawdy and booming “ShenYeng Anthem.”

Punctuated throughout the videos for all of her biggest hits is a consistent love for her home country of Jamaica — treatments are lush displays of color and diverse groups of women in various positions of power. The official clip for “Blessed,” as an example, has no major appearance from any men save for the artist featured. No matter the scenario, as she has expanded her sphere of influence, she has ensured that she has put out visuals where women control the narrative — even when singing about submissive sex — but it doesn’t render them immune from criticism: The video for ShenYeng Anthem, for example, received a fair amount of pushback for the intermingled Asian imagery and yellowface deemed offensive. To this charge, she never responded.

But firmly putting out triumph after triumph at a rapid clip in the dancehall music scene gained her a solid fan base not just in Jamaica, but in cities with large Caribbean diasporas such as New York, Toronto, and London. Just two days prior to her single debut at Miss Lily’s, Shenseea performed to a packed crowd at Queens NY’s Amazura Nightclub in Jamaica — a popular stomping ground for artists such as Mavado and Aidonia — just as she had done the year before.

In July, however, she would make her return to Queens – but to perform at MoMA P.S. 1’s The Warm Up Series alongside artists such as Smino and Boogie, a distinctly different audience than her usual stomping grounds, and her first big outing as part of the Interscope family, following a number of show cancellations due to vocal cord trauma, which has caused her continuous frustration. “I really do not know to expect,” she admitted, “but I’m ready for it. I’m just going to go out there, do my best and interact with my people as I normally do.”

This image may contain Human Person Festival Crowd Stage Footwear Shoe Clothing Apparel and Leisure Activities

The day of the actual performance was, literally, one for the record books: with a heat index that was slated to go as high as 111 degrees, several events were canceled throughout the city, including OZY Fest and Triathlon. But for Shenseea, the show must go on – a 30-minute set to formally introduce her past, present, and future sound to the world, to a completely new crowd.

True to form, she delivered, triumphantly strutting out onto the Long Island City stage in a silver iridescent jacket, lime green thigh-high boots bustier, and cutoff shorts performing her dancehall anthem. By the time she would return to the song later in the set, her jacket and shoes were off, and she was passing the mic back and forth with the ShenYeng fanbase, who were ardently singing along: “nuh fight over man / mi nuh stress over yute / some gyal head full a air like parachute,” an ode to not letting the man ever be the prize or getting wrapped up in fights with women who insist on thinking that way.

The set had a bevy of other peaks as well: a strong and sultry rendition of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” transitioned to a custom remix of her own, and the “Applause Riddim,” most famously used for Sean Paul’s 2006 hit single “Temperature,” blared through the speakers, while Shenseea comfortably exercised her underutilized rap freestyling skills.

By the time that she closed with “Blessed”, her opening words on stage, “my name is Shenseea from Kingston, Jamaica!” were ingrained in the heads of anyone in the audience who had yet to be introduced to her.

When it comes to new music, while an album is reportedly dropping in the fall, her fans, antsy for content, are unused to the traditional Western single rollout and are chomping at the bit for more music – and while she is currently focused on the bigger picture, Shenseea never plans on forgetting her original fanbase, saying; “I’m gonna release one more song just for the dancehall culture.”

In this new wave of attention to dancehall, Shenseea, more so than her peers, seems to not only be aware of the power of social media but has also worked to organically harness that power and momentum in a way that can create a flashpoint moment out of her next teaser on Instagram. It’s a relationship that has occasionally worked to her detriment, but currently, the future is looking bright.

Back in the green room after her performance, Shenseea is relaxed in a chair, surrounded by her close friends and longtime team. “It was good, right?” she asks, pleased with the results despite some intermittent technical issues with the microphones. She laughs, “I think [the heat was] just an excuse for people to drop their clothes.”

As for what Shenseea wants people to know? “I am coming. Even if they can’t pronounce the name or remember, they will remember quite soon enough. I said that when I was just coming on the scene — the first time I started doing music, nobody could pronounce my name properly. And what I told them is still valid — it will roll off your tongue quite soon, don’t worry. And so said, so done. Now everybody’s saying Shenseea.”

An Examination of Aunty: Documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn on the Historical Weight of the Word

Originally published for OkayAfrica as part of their annual 100Women campaign. 

Ask any Black person of the African Diaspora who their favorite celebrity aunty is and you’ll likely receive 10 different responses.

There’s Maxine Waters, whose tenure and temerity in Congress have endeared her to the Black community at large. In entertainment, you may get Jenifer Lewis, who has effortlessly played so many maternal figures on the big screen that she proudly titled her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood. The music industry has given us women ranging from Mary J. Blige to Anita Baker—different eras of songstresses, but aunties all the same. And then there’s Bose Ogulu, mother of Burna Boy, whose no-nonsense persona reminds fans so much of their own aunties that she has been affectionately ordained “Mama Burna.”

The thread that binds all these women to this label is the sense of kinship, adoration, and respect endowed upon them by the Black Diaspora; the title is one that is earned, and to be carried proudly. “Aunty” is a name that surpasses its biological definition. It is a sentiment that photographer and documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and I discuss as we ponder our own transitions to such a position in our families—hers a pan-African unit several generations out of the continent—at the OkayAfrica 100 Women photoshoot. Barrayn is still buzzing from her go in front of the lens; it is not lost on the creative that the table—or the cameras—have quite literally turned. She is now the one being documented.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Barrayn says, switching out the wide brim hat she’s wearing to another one in her bag. Lately, she tells us behind-the-scenes, hats are her thing.

Barrayn’s greatest works focus on documentation, and reclaiming and preserving the so very uniquely African use of “aunty” came naturally. This composition of lived experience anchored by historical context brought Barrayn to collaborating with author and art collector Catherine McKinley on Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to the Present, a Brooklyn exhibit that unfurled the legacy of African womanhood and agency through the lens and timeline of photography on the continent. The term “aunty” as a titular framework for the collection is equal parts reverence, exploration, and reclamation of the word, drawing through-lines on how the perception of African women has shifted in tandem with the storytellers in charge.

In many African cultures, aunty is a label bestowed unto a woman as a term of respect or status rather than an indicator of any familial relationship; an inversion of its application in the colonial era, where white landowners used the term to mammify or subjugate African women as the laborers and caretakers of their European overlords. In this way, the manner in which we reclaim it present day is not dissimilar to the painful history of the word “nigga” in the United States.

“We can’t do a show called Aunty and not talk about that,” Barrayn says. “Aunty was a derogative, colonial term… It was not positive so we wanted to look at both of sides of what aunty means.”

In other words, as Barrayn says, “I like to show the whole conversation.”

The agency represented in Aunty’s photographs as new generations took hold of their images (and the words used to describe them) extends to curation as well, as Barrayn points out that a large portion of African works are mostly presented by white, male, European collectors: “It’s important for me to kind of have that pushback by two women of African descent to present the works in our own context and contextualize it in a way that wouldn’t erase some of the history and the culture of how and when and why these pictures were taken.”

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present , “Three Women” — Image by Oumar Ly, Podor, Senegal, Circa 1980

With that contextualization comes a reckoning of images she collected featuring African women before the establishment of African studios: colonial photography that reinforced a mammification (or inherent servitude) of the women not just on the continent, but also abroad. “They were used as postcards, they were used as part of the colonial project and regime to document what was happening on the continent as it related to their pursuits on the land,” Barrayn says, highlighting that African women were an object of fascination. (Think Sarah Baartman, the Khoi woman taken from South Africa and paraded around Europe’s freak shows.)

“What I didn’t show in the exhibition was the back of the postcard. There were a lot of negative messages—’look where I am, look at this ugly woman on this postcard, I’m in the jungle, I’m glad this isn’t you,’—and different things like that,” Barrayn says.

This derogatory collection is juxtaposed by photos of African studios in the 50s and 60s by legendary artists such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe—portraits and celebrations of young women engaging in everyday life—ultimately transitioning into the work of contemporary African photographers such as Fatoumata Diabate, using the camera as a medium to push the vanguard of representations of the African woman in present-day. As the African studios began to flourish, the photos veered away from third-person gawking to fuller depictions of daily life—anything from traditional ceremonies to young adults on their way to the club, with full consent of the parties involved.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, “Woman in Afro” — Image by Adama Sylla, Saint-Louis, Senegal, Circa 1970

“Now, a lot of African photographers are shying away from the photojournalism and documentary work and really using a lot of creativity and their imagination and creating new ideas about their lives and the world,” Barrayn mentions excitedly. “And a lot of the work now is fictionalized and storied which is really interesting and fun. It’s an experience to engage with because you get to see what people on the continent are thinking about themselves and what could be.”

Naming this generational collection of photos came easy. Aunty, Laylah says, is what intrinsically developed as she and McKinley went through the process of selecting which of the photos amassed would make the final cut for the exhibit: “We were like, ‘Okay let’s put this aunty to the side.’ We were calling these women aunties. We had seen the photographs before, they felt very close to us, even though they were photographs, they were African women from various African countries….it was just so intuitive.”

The century-long transition Barrayn’s project showcased rendered the dynamic of the subject of the photos from purely exploitative to more collaborative, allowing for the women to choose how they want their stories to be captured for themselves, as opposed to having a narrative foisted upon them. As was deserving of proper aunties, they were now being granted with the respect, deference, and agency they had long been denied.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, “Fela Queens” — Image by Bernard Matussiere, European Tour 1983, The McKinley Collection

In a manner, these photos had been seen before by many of us first generation children; a fair number of these images were reminiscent of the photo albums tucked away in the houses of our parents and grandparents. Our albums possess snapshots akin to the artifacts being gathered by the various white collectors across the globe—priceless commodities that preserved the legacies of the women who came before us. For Barrayn, they were a critical opportunity in allowing us to become our own archivists, as opposed to letting our stories continue to fall in the hands and context of said collectors, such as Andre Magnin’s collection of Sidibe’s work.

“Family archives are very important to me in understanding who you are as a person, as an individual, your familial and cultural identity, and also really documenting the time too,” she says. “Now, some of the photography that’s from the 40s and 50s are worth a lot of money—so if you don’t value it somebody else will.”

“Women Paying Respect to Mame Diarra Bousso, Prokhane” — Image by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Senegal, 2014

As she relays this to me with conviction, I think about my upcoming trip this summer—back to my family’s homeland of Comoros, where I’ll spend time with my many aunts, biological and otherwise, in a woman-dominant clan. For most of my life, I have called all of them Tata—the French word for aunty—but in recent years, as the next generation has started to come of age, I have been elevated to Tata status of my very own. Inheriting that mantle comes with a duty to preserve the family legacy before those memories are lost—or, perhaps even worse, defined by someone else.

For Barrayn, she hopes that her work encourages people to create platforms that continue to show the whole conversation, similar to Aunty and her project MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora—a publication that showcases the works of 100 women of African descent, and continues the tradition of using photography as a launching point for new perspectives and under-discussed narratives .

Chronicling our heritage through photographs is a privilege, and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted as our forebearers lacked the ability to dictate narratives on their own terms. And exploring the language used against us, and how our current colloquialism has turned it into something we honor, is an important context to our overall history.

Aunty is more than a photographic exhibit to change the perceptions of how African women were seen and how they see themselves.

“A reclamation of the word, yes,” Barrayn says. “And an examination of the word.”

Afropunk’s Owners Get Real About the Festival’s Growth, Recent Controversies

Originally published for The Root.

For Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper, it has been a long, 15-year journey to get the Afropunk Festival from the small, local hangout for passionate message-board friends in the alt-punk space congregating in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY, to the internationally renowned entertainment juggernaut it is today.

Borne out of a titular documentary exploring a “subculture within a subculture,” Afropunk has expanded well beyond the original source material, becoming more inclusive of the nuances of alternative black spaces as the years have progressed. But with rapid growth comes criticism—and in recent years the festival has withstood a fair amount, from pushback over the rapidly rising ticket prices for admission to dismay over the perceived erasure of the punk fanbase it was created to serve to rumblings of an increasing nonblack presence.

This growing friction between the paradox of “punk” and commercialism has been an ongoing conversation for Cooper and Morgan, which they have worked to address year after year, as they continue to cement themselves as the ambassadors of an independent black media company with a large global imprint.

“I think there’s a misconception that we are not-for-profit,” says Morgan, who co-founded the current iteration of the festival with Cooper in 2009 (prior to that, Morgan had collaborated with James Spooner, the creator of the Afropunk documentary, in what was known as the “AfroPunk Music and Film Festival”). “Although we worked in the last few years with local authorities and the mayor’s office and the local government, we are a for-profit business and we were a for-profit business even when we were free.”

“If you pick any two acts, headliners in a direct support of any of the four stages and you put those together, you cannot see two acts for the price that we have,” Morgan further clarifies. “We are still the cheapest festival in America, and we do that because it’s more important for us to have a black audience that pays for a ticket that supports their culture and enables us to have black people in marketing, editorial, sales, sponsorship. It creates a business that is for the community. That employs the community.”

Despite the relative affordability of tickets, the uptick over the years is still unmistakable, going from a previously “free” (with donations requested) event to most recently charging $60 per day, for the two-day festival. However, Afropunk Brooklyn has had a continued partnership with Chip’N in the Earn A Ticket program, which provides the opportunity for Brooklyn residents to get a free day pass in exchange for a set amount of volunteer hours. According to Cooper and Morgan, approximately 20 percent of all tickets were earned tickets this year.

With regards to the punk legacy of the festival, both Morgan and Cooper admit that they’ve veered beyond the confines of the source material envisioned by film creator James Spooner, but resist being confined to its initial definitions as their brand continues to grow.

“In 2007, 2008, I think I started to expand the definitions and not be locked into what traditional punk rock dictates because we’re already outside of those lines, so why did we have to work things that were already not for us? Why weren’t we supposed to create our own space? And that also means that, for me, the music genre is not important. It’s about the attitude, it’s about the people, it’s about the resistance, it’s about resisting in a place that is normally not associated with people of color,” Morgan says.

Morgan also draws onto his own background as to why he felt compelled to expand the musical offerings:

“I love an audience of 250, 300 people … but if I kept going down that road, I said that we would miss the people like myself. The kids that lived in the projects, like where I grew up, not what people write about but where people actually live can grow up and form community, friendship. I would miss those kids because the music would tell them that it wasn’t for them, as opposed to being an inviting place that had all types of music, therefore would bring different types of black people. So I think it’s not for me about when the decision was made about the genre of music. It was a position to bring more black people in than to exclude.”

Despite the expansion into other genres, they continue to book punk artists, and claim to book more traditional punk bands (11 this year) than any other major festivals, including artists such as the Fever 333 and Black Pantera from Brazil.

“We create alternative marketing materials solely for the punk bands so people are more aware that they exist,” Morgan says. “And the way that they’re described between the other bands is done so people go for Yuna and see the Fever 333, and that is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. If people are new to what we’re doing, then my assumption is that they don’t know the history and they’re joining now too … which is fine. We welcome that.”

As to the social media buzz of an increasing nonblack presence in recent years, Cooper adamantly states, “This is not true. Come to the festival, you’d see,” adding that there were arguably more white attendees when the festival was still held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Morgan adds that the highest possible concentration—which, they both emphasize, is still not high—may be in the VIP section where the sponsors, band managers and special guest lists are: “The reality is that we have more agents and we have bigger bands and if anyone can tell me how we tell the bands with their white agents and their white friends and their white bandmates and their white girlfriends and parents that they can’t come to the festival … tell me how to do that without coming across like a bigot,” Morgan says.

This year’s festival was punctuated with a viral incident in which Ebony Donnely and his partner Ericka Hart claimed they were removed from the VIP section by security on Morgan’s orders for wearing a T-shirt noting that “Afropunk Sold Out For White Consumption.” In his own words, Morgan gave his own accounting of the incident, contributing it to a disappointing miscommunication:

“I walk up to three people after scanning who went backstage and I said, ‘Interesting shirt,’ or, ‘What’s that shirt?’ Unbeknownst to me, they had been taken backstage by our film crew to do an interview, which they did. And our film crew gave Ebony backstage a marker, and backstage, Ebony wrote on the shirt. I don’t know what selling out for white consumption is and I was actually interested in what that was, but I commented on the shirt and then I asked for what credentials do you have and I was told, and in my English [Morgan is from England], I was told to mind my own business and I think, in American, it was ‘why are you asking so many questions?’ The amount of conversation about the T-shirt was perhaps three seconds. We then went on to talk about the credentials. When they basically told me to mind my own business, I asked the security. They asked me what was going on, and I said—this is where the ‘my house’ thing comes up—I said, ‘Back here is my house. You can do whatever you want outside but you don’t have the right credentials to go backstage. You have to go.’

“Other people were being asked to leave backstage. It’s not a VIP as I’ve read. It’s not an area for uninvited guest. It’s a backstage working talent area. I noticed Erica. I said, ‘Erica.’ And she said, ‘You know me.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I know you,’ and that was kind of how the interaction went. It was very, very short. They were escorted out. Erica asked me, ‘Are we being kicked out the festival?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. Just not backstage,’ and they were escorted from backstage to the entrance of backstage and they went on their way.”

Morgan adds that the removal had nothing to do with the T-shirt, noting that prior to the incident, he had a lengthy and productive exchange with someone else who had a shirt stating “Make AfroPunk Free Again” without conflict. It was in this spirit of discourse that Morgan and Cooper invited Donnely and Hart to their Solution Sessions podcast, which they chose to decline.

Cooper took direct issue with the implications of the shirt itself, highlighting the impact of Afropunk in the black community in Brooklyn and abroad.

“We have supported 250 black businesses in our market,” she says, from food businesses, to homemade earring designers to organizations that have built schools in Ghana—in addition to a fully black, live-event production company. To Cooper, the greater objective of Afropunk is to create an ecosystem of a self-sustaining dollars within the black community and its diasporas, a concept that would directly counter any notion of white consumption.

“I just looked at an impact study that we helped to generate to the city of Johannesburg almost a hundred million Rand (approximately 6.6 million USD) worth of business that we brought into that city in our first year. We’re just getting started,” she says.

On the heels of this discord also lies some internal tensions made public by longtime editor-in-chief of, Lou Constant-Desportes, who announced he had stepped down in a Facebook post that claimed the “philosophy and actions of some of the people who run the company are so at odds with the values that they claim to stand for.”

From Morgan and Cooper’s end, they both lamented the loss of a beloved family member from their team, indicating that bringing on Emil Wilbekin as chief content officer and Constant-Desportes’ new boss to expand their editorial vertical approximately six weeks ago may have contributed to the situation. (The Root has reached out to Constant-Desportes for comment).

Afropunk is rapidly expanding with no signs of slowing down—this year’s officially reported attendance numbers for Afropunk Brooklyn was 25,000 people a day. Next year will be the inaugural Afropunk Brazil, which will officially place the black-owned festival in four continents, with teams and offices being built in each of the other corresponding locations—Brooklyn, Atlanta, London, Paris and Johannesburg.

Concurrently, both Cooper and Morgan are eager to expand their reach into other branches of entertainment—expanding their podcasting efforts with an upcoming partnership with the HowStuffWorks network, as well as looking to undertake a few film projects. By all estimations, their dream of a fully realized digital media company is within arm’s reach—but as their network continues to expand, the dialogue of reconciling seemingly conflicting legacies of capitalistic enterprise with their punk ethos and an enmeshed association with black activism and empowerment will likely be a continuing one. On their end, they are prepared to have it—just tune into their next Solution Sessions. As Morgan puts it, “we’re able to do more when we can finance the revolution.”