Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.
A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”
Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Lifeseason 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.
Originally published for Vulture on March 30, 2022.
When Angelique Kidjo accepted her 2016 Grammy for Best Global Music Album, she forecasted a future well beyond her own accomplishments. “I want to dedicate this Grammy to all the traditional musicians in Africa in my country, to all the younger generations that knew our music,” the Beninese artist said. “Africa is on the rise.”
It was a bold premonition, and one without much precedent in the United States. For a long time, the Grammys and American music industry at large relegated artists like Kidjo to the nebulous genre of “world music,” which, alongside Latin pop and reggae, remained one of several niches that were stratified not by any technical criteria, but by a vaguely colonial pan-ethnic taxonomy. It’s why salsero Marc Anthony, rocker Juanes, and música urbana artist Bad Bunny could receive the same award, despite having disparate musical skill sets, or why Best Reggae Album frequently featured dancehall artists; adherence to indigeneity is not the standard.
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Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille. Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.
The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.
Aya has a challenging act to follow; it seems nearly unfathomable to eclipse the cultural phenomenon of “Djadja.” The Aulnay-sous-Bois-raised chanteuse rose to the occasion, however, masterfully employing l’argot, or French slang, as she shifts through her various modalities of defiance, softness, and matters of the heart to create a cohesive, intimate experience. Aya is the sound of a young woman and mother who has found the love she deserves and is embracing it unreservedly.
The most explicit Afrobeats flair takes center stage with the tracks “La Machine” and “Doudou” (an kreyòl term for honey/boo). In the former, it is the crisp and commanding lyricism that makes the track so enjoyable, layered over production that harkens back to the spellbinding era early 2010s Wizkid; the latter reunites Aya with Parisian producers Le Side (“Djadja”, “Pookie”) for a sensual and forthright single that seems tailor-made for a Burna Boy remix. The notion of him doing a romantic French verse in response to the enticingly delivered “parle en français, sois clair” would seemingly do wonders for accelerating a bridge to a frequently misunderstood market of the French urban music scene. But as Nakamura has stated repeatedly, anglophone acknowledgment is not her concern. As it stands, the two English features on the album—Stormzy and Ms. Banks—are used sparingly and judiciously, with the latter providing the greater punch on the sweetly delivered “Mon Lossa.”
As in her previous projects, Aya flexes her melodic muscle in other genres. “Fly,” while in need of some refinement in execution around the hook, contains the same spirited airiness of a Dangerous Woman-era Ariana Grande ballad; “Plus jamais” (Never Again), despite Stormzy’s muted presence, is an R&B track at its core, the English version of which would find a perfect home in a Kehlani project. She shares the fear and intensity of falling in love, likening the pleasure of succumbing to it to a religious experience in “Nirvana”; the liberal use of Mashallah in a time when France is being challenged on the world stage for Islamophobic and racially heightened social contexts does not go unnoticed.
Just two tracks later, she partners with Franco-Malagasy rapper Oboy for the erotic “Préféré”—and therein lies the magic of Aya, or La Nakamurance. She will juxtapose her faith with a sexual liaison, dismiss wastemen while fantasizing about the traditional weddings that she had seen growing up in her West African community, and revive and transform a beloved mid-aughts zouk certified hood classic from a Franco-Comorian songwriter (“Sentiments Grandissants”) without hesitation. The efforts may not always land, but she approaches each layer with sincerity—and the successful conjugations are transcendent experiences, greater than their individual parts.
While some members of the French establishment may look askance at her heavy use of argot, she remains dominant, with a cultural penetration that hasn’t emerged from a woman in France since the days of Edith Piaf. Nakamura may be a self-designation, but she is indeed a superhero of sorts; informed by the line of griottes in her maternal Malian heritage, fearlessly genre-bending, shunning the unspoken limitations of genre labels. Like Piaf, Aya “ne regrette rien”—her musical fingerprint is an intimate portrait not just of her life, but the interplay of dominant sounds from the African and West Indian communities in France and how well she can slide between them, both in lingo and melody.
These compositions are what make her music most successful to her longtime fans—a zouk percussion line throbs under refrains that seamlessly flow between R&B and more potent Afropop intonations, as is the case with the deliciously sharp “Tchop” (Whip), and may even inject a classic kompa synth beat for some gouyad (as on the waning moments of “Préféré”). The young woman from 93eme is exposing the world to the France that she knows and hears, in prose and tempo, with every new stream. That is a level of cultural currency that far outweighs a new Times Square billboard—although it would be well served for the rest of the Western musical vanguard to come along for the ride.
“If we would have quit back when they called us crazy, Illinois wouldn’t be at $15,” says Adriana Alvarez, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago and leader in the Fight for $15 movement. “Florida wouldn’t have the 15 on the ballot.”
The worker-led movement has expanded exponentially, with the Democratic Party embracing it as part of its official platform in 2016. Despite these groundbreaking successes, there is still a long runway to nationwide adoption of living wages and benefits for fast food and service workers, even with the COVID-19 pandemic laying bare the frailties of their lives as essential workers—disproportionate numbers of whom come from Black and brown communities.
“They’re going to say, ‘In this economy, we can’t have a $15 minimum wage; we need to promote job creation.’” – Maurice Mitchell
“Even before we were all wearing masks, they weren’t providing soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, any of the basic things that we knew that we needed at the top of the pandemic,” says Allynn Umel, National Organizing Director for Fight for $15 and A Union. “Every improvement that needs to be made, they have to beg and fight for, and changes are only happening in stores as workers are demanding those kinds of protections.”
While McDonald’s is the largest fast food employer contending with a history of dissatisfied employees, it certainly isn’t the only one. As Salon reported, an estimated 400 workers from 70 stores staged a large strike outside of a New York City Wendy’s and Burger King in 2013. The same year, approximately 2,200 workers went on strike in all of the cities where fast food workers had previously gone on strike, with the addition of Flint, Michigan, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Considering the significant sociopolitical momentum behind the Fight for $15 movement, it would stand to reason that elected officials would represent the interests of their constituents. Yet that hasn’t been the case on the federal level: presently, with a Republican majority, the Raise the Wage Act is stagnant in the Senate.
“The Senate as a body is not very democratic,” explains Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, adding that “most people in the political class occupy space that comprises a particular community, but they represent organized capital.” The ways that corporate political influence materializes are varied and ornate, from campaign financing to deep coffers for legislative lobbying, but these acts can effectively grind discussions to a halt.
Taking McDonald’s as an example, the corporation has not only actively lobbied the Trump administration for exemptions for paid sick leave during this period of upheaval, but also remains on the board of the National Restaurant Association, which has been a major contributor to the Save Florida Jobs PAC, a group opposing the measure on the Florida ballot to raise the wage floor—despite having publicly committed to no longer impeding wage hikes.
Alvarez, who is also a mother, led a wildcat strike at her McDonald’s location in Cicero, Illinois, to demand paid sick leave. “We were supposed to do a friendly protest, walk in, hand in our demands—and the manager decided to ignore us, act like we weren’t there, and call the cops” she says, explaining what prompted the picketing. “Two or three weeks later, they came up with a system of making it easier for us to claim sick days.”
“Even before we were all wearing masks, they weren’t providing soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, any of the basic things that we knew that we needed at the top of the pandemic.” – Allynn Umel
McDonald’s corporate interference in labor organizing extends to the National Labor Relations Board, where it has been enmeshed in an extended battle with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over Joint Employer rules. The McDonald’s chain refused to be acknowledged as a joint-employer with franchise owners, ultimately reversing joint employer status, enabling the franchiser to evade accountability for employees in their locations nationwide. It should be noted that conflicts of interest were raised around Trump-appointed board chair John Ring and board member William Emanuel’s previous work for a law firm that represented McDonald’s—Emanuel declined to recuse himself from the case upon the workers’ request.
While the problems presented may seem black and white, tackling them is not straightforward, at least not electorally. Part of the problem is surmounting the political premise that crises like our current pandemic call for austerity that harms the working class the most. “They’re going to say, ‘In this economy, we can’t have a $15 minimum wage; we need to promote job creation,’ so we just need to create whatever jobs that are substandard,” Mitchell says. “We need to invest in strategies that get money into everyday people’s pockets and raising the wage floor does exactly that.”
Cory Alpert, founding partner and managing director at South & West, an agency that consults on campaigns such as those of Pete Buttigieg and Steve Benjamin, concurs, explaining that “emotionally, that always sounds right to people, that increasing the minimum wage at McDonald’s to $15 an hour means that they won’t be able to hire as many people. But so far, the evidence that I’ve seen shows that money actually gets put back in the economy, and the economy actually grows stronger.” In fact, throughout this crisis, and while lobbying for the aforementioned exemptions, McDonald’s has paid out $1.25 billion a quarter in dividends, to the tune of $5.04 billion for the 2020 fiscal year—almost $300 million higher than in 2019.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Alpert says, referencing Frederick Douglass. “Money, at least in our society, is power. The crux of a lot of pushback is that people who are wealthy don’t want to share economic stability. They emotionally, if not also economically, benefit from having historically underserved communities continue to remain underserved, under-resourced, and under-financed.”
On the municipal level, significant obstacles remain. “Cities and city councils in some states have huge amounts of influence; in some states, they have two hands tied behind their back by the state legislature,” explains Alpert, pointing to South Carolina and Indiana as examples of the latter. “Even where you have a fairly progressive city like Columbia, where if a measure was put to the city council or in a citywide public vote, it would likely pass—probably a 55% victory—the state legislature here is solidly Republican,” he adds, saying that until the “Home Rule law is amended to allow cities to have more flexibility in that regard, that just isn’t going to change.”
“All essential workers—from fast-food to health care to child care —deserve at least $15/hour to make ends meet and the right to come together in a union.” – Mary Kay Henry
Outside of electioneering, the pandemic does present new wrinkles with organizing and direct action work. “The people who care the most about the Fight for $15 fight or who would be most directly impacted were going under-accessed because people aren’t knocking doors in the same way that they were able to in previous years,” says Camonghne Felix, vice president of strategic communications at Blue State, a digital strategy and technology agency that specializes in advocacy and constituency development. Alvarez has pivoted to more online campaigns, but has admitted that it has a different yield. “You can’t visually see crowds of people, which to this day still gives me chills. But we have to adapt. We’re not going to stop because, oh, no, it’s a pandemic,” she jokes. “McDonald’s wishes we would stop. But we’re not going to. It’s whatever it takes.”
“For too long, corporations like McDonald’s have put profits over people, putting workers at risk and paying poverty wages while working families struggle to get by,” says SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. “The COVID-19 crisis has made clear to everyone what working people have long known: all essential workers—from fast food to health care to child care—deserve at least $15/hour to make ends meet and the right to come together in a union.”
Alvarez plans to continue the fight and asks people to remain in solidarity with essential workers as they amplify the voices around their cause both on the streets and digitally, not just for fair wages but full union protections, adhering to the ethos of more people, more power.
“We’ve been knowing that we’re essential. We really didn’t need people to label us as essential,” she points out. “We’re doing a lot more than just what they call flipping burgers.”
Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”
Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.
Every show introduces us to a new crop of foreign nationals working their way through the labyrinthine U.S. immigration system for our entertainment. The Americans on the show allegedly receive a nominal appearance fee(reps for TLC tell ZORA that they are compliant with all relevant laws related to compensating participants). The stereotypical narratives that accompany each couple follow this formula: a “will-they-or-won’t-they” story arc, a look into an exoticized culture, and an “opposites attract” plot twist that colors every pairing. The franchise is entertaining and chaotic, with colonial fascinations and familiar beats of beloved American sitcoms. It has also become a ratings hit for TLC. The latest season of Happily Ever After? premiered to 4.1 million viewers.
Created by producer Matt Sharp, the show has remained apolitical as public discourse around draconian immigration policy escalated to a fever pitch over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations. TLC and 90 Day Fiancé strove to separate themselves from an increasingly polarizing conversation with Sharp explaining on the Reality Life with Kate Casey podcast that the franchise was a “super authentic, warts and all, look at love.”
Love, after all, is easier to sell than watercooler conversations about imperialism, xenophobia, and exploitative power imbalances. Nevertheless, they are simultaneously etched into the framework that serves as the bedrock of the American immigration system and TLC’s latest pop culture phenomenon.
TLC says the aim and success of the franchise are tied to celebrating cultural diversity through romantic partnership. “The show highlights that we can all get along, and there’s more that brings us together and unites us than divides us. We think that is one of the things that keep people coming back to the show. Part of the secret sauce is that diversity,” says Alon Orstein, TLC’s senior vice president of production. “To see that unspool and to see that love can win out.”
Love, after all, is easier to sell than watercooler conversations about imperialism, xenophobia, and exploitative power imbalances. Nevertheless, they are simultaneously etched into the framework that serves as the bedrock of the American immigration system and TLC’s latest pop culture phenomenon.
The show was never conceived to be sensitive to the particularities of immigration. Before 90 Day Fiancé became an empire, it was simply a pitched show about international love, based on a news magazine article about men and women going on international “love tours,” as Sharp explained toCasey. With that pitch failing, it rebranded itself as “Bachelor Wars: Russia,” attempting to corner male networks with a narrative of men connecting with women they met online to see if they fall in love. Producers stumbled onto the K-1 visa in the midst of their attempts to mold the previous iterations. As the story goes, the demo reel was shown to Lee and the rest is history.
“The 90-day time frame was one of the things that initially drew us to this concept,” Orstein says. “At the end of the day, these are about love stories [and] about navigating relationships — people trying to find the one. The K-1 visa, you know, can be a fascinating backdrop for that.”
Keeping this in mind, missteps were inevitable considering that Sharp revealed much of the production team crossed over from MTV’s Teen Mom world, which received its own criticisms for replacing accurate portrayals of young parenthood with controversial storylines. These machinations lend themselves to a sensational television experience while also exacerbating harmful stereotypes.
And few consider the collateral damage.
Take the genesis of the show, which is predicated around a slight misrepresentation of the conceit of the visa. In an interview for Vulture, Lee explains it like this: “Anybody who’s an American citizen who falls in love with a foreigner from another country, if you decide to propose to them, after you become engaged, they first must live in the USA for 90 days. At the conclusion of those 90 days, you must make a proclamation, ‘I plan on now getting permanently married to this person.’ But if both parties don’t agree to marry, that person who’s the foreigner must return to their home country. I found that intriguing. And I could understand what the finale would be: They’re going to have to make a decision whether or not they’re getting married.”
But Lee’s explanation is structurally incorrect. “When you petition for a fiancé visa, you promise the government that you are going to get married,” says Prem Kumar, CEO at Visa Tutor. “It’s not a dating period like the show makes it seem. In your petition paperwork that you promise to marry your fiancé when he or she lands in the U.S.”
Kumar is referring to a letter of intent that is submitted by both the American petitioner and the international fiancé declaring that they are legally free to marry and are committing to marrying within 90 days of arrival. “If someone enters on the K-1 visa to marry Person A, they have to marry Person A. Otherwise they can’t adjust their status to a green card holder down the road,” says Mario Godoy, an immigration attorney in Chicago.
With the K-1 status tethered to the American petitioner, any rupture in the relationship results in a lapse of status — even after marriage and initial dispensation of a green card. “At any point that an individual gets a green card, within two years of their marriage, they’re going to have to file another petition to remove those conditions, otherwise, they lose their green card status,” Godoy explains, referring to a form known as the I-751.
Generally, work authorization is not immediately granted and has to be petitioned for separately, which is why the foreign national is often unpaid — and why the couples on the show are often documented as seeking employment despite generating billions in revenue for a cable network. In the case of Lima, for example, since gaining employment authorization in March, she has earned money through Cameo appearances and OnlyFans, the de rigueur platform for influencers in quarantine. She is also reinvesting in her market value with multiple cosmetic procedures, paid for by her new romantic partner. Scorn ensued, dominated by moral handwringing by viewers over Lima’s participation in sex work and their views of her ability to responsibly raise her children remotely while they are forced to live separate from her in Brazil. This despite Lima’s insistence that the bulk of her profits are sent back to Brazil for her children.
On average, the process, starting from initial petition filing, can take anywhere from eight to 13 months and several thousands of dollars, according to Godoy. One of the biggest assessments at all points of the process — from the original petition to the embassy interview to the final arrival at point of entry — speaks to “preconceived intent.” This notion is also known as the aim of coming to the U.S. via a nonimmigrant visa, such as a B-2 tourist visa, with the intent to adjust status. A K-1 offers dual intent. It is a temporary visa, which, upon approval and processing, provides the pathway to permanent residence. As a result, K-1 applications are subject to higher levels of scrutiny.
When creating a nationwide sensation that places a spotlight on an oft-contested immigration process that foments nativist rhetoric from its viewers, some accountability is in order.
“Rejection rates are not presented by the Department of State [on a national basis],” says Fadi Minawi, managing director of VisaPlace. “This may encompass different reasons including the age difference between the couple, cultural differences, difficulty in communicating due to language barriers.”
There is also the common perception of a “high fraud risk” country, Kumar explains. People from these countries typically experience tougher interviews at the U.S. Embassy.
“A lot of African nations, a lot of South Asian countries are placed under scrutiny,” Kumar adds. “Middle East countries like Morocco are placed under huge scrutiny.”
Ultimately the truth belies the widely associated stigma. As Minawi points out, the Department of State approved approximately 80% of K-1 visas in 2019.
As Lee recently told Vulture, “a lot of couples were a study in contrast. They weren’t completely the type of couple you could imagine on television together, by their racial differences, their diversity, age difference.” In effect, the show plays directly into the tropes that raise red flags for petitioners in marriage-based interviews for K-visas. The producers engage the audience in authenticating these purported stories of true love in lockstep with the U.S. Embassy.
Adhering to Sharp’s philosophy that the best shows are “ones where there’s actually a debate on the couches of America,” the mirage of serialized romance quickly gives way to arcs that tease out tropes in immigration stories. Most notably, those narratives include fraud versus altruism or the power imbalance introduced when the American threatens deportation or revocation of a green card petition. There’s also the constant chatter of friends and family who embrace xenophobic reductions of the countries in question, ostensibly to protect their loved ones from being “used for a green card.”
The role of the audience as de facto immigration sleuths is supported by the nature of the social media engagement with the show. There is an active Reddit dedicated to investigating the couples’ true intent, Buzzfeed articles aggregating tweets, and an active community on the show’s Facebook page. A quick scan across these platforms reveals a recurring trend: Participants are most actively slanted against the immigrating party, while the Americans may be viewed as simpletons at best and fetishists at worst.
In reality, the debate presented by the show is a false one wrought out of a capitalist engine fueled by romance.
“There’s no requirement in immigration that you love your partner,” Godoy states, clarifying the rubric for legitimizing a relationship. “If you look at the law, that is not there. Otherwise, how would people with arranged marriages by families immigrate to the United States? Everyone thinks that it has to be for love. What the immigration law actually requires that you hold yourself out to be married.”
Marriage, after all, has historically been a business and legal contract. This fact holds within the K-1 process, which even makes accommodations for international marriage brokers despite seeking cookie-cutter narratives of partnership. As Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy: “Marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.”
Yet the show doubles down on the love notion, reaching out to people with established networks like Kumar — who had a subscribed readership to Visa Tutor of over 2,200 at the time — looking for “real people with interesting backgrounds and stories and potentially interesting situations,” as Sharp said. This is corroborated by Kumar’s recollection of his correspondence with Sharp Entertainment, which sought to cast colorful couples from his readership in exchange for a spot in the limelight and “a way to memorialize the relationship.”
Orstein reiterates that TLC is looking for love stories. “Where aspects of the K-1 or immigration are relevant to that love story, we’ve shed light on it [and] we will certainly go there. But that’s not what we’re looking at first and foremost,” he says. “Yes, I think some questions [come up]: ‘Is so-and-so in it for the right reason? Are they trying to get a green card? Is this really about two people trying to make it?’ Those are things, of course, that are central to the series. But we really do try to keep it more on the boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy, girl-meets-girl piece of this, which to us is where the real narrative lies.”
Underneath the well-scored theatrics and entertainment lies a dangerous tale of unethical disruption that enshrouds the love story arc the franchise purports to sell. And when the watch parties come to a close, it is frequently the non-Americans who are left to deal with the fallout.
In the case of Lima, she arrived in the U.S. under a K-1 visa, settling into a life with her American husband Colt Johnson in Nevada. The union was short-lived. After a contentious relationship where both accused the other of domestic violence and abuse, Lima was ultimately arrested twice. The marriage ended in divorce. Her ex-husband canceled his affidavit of support for her green card, placing her resident status in the country in limbo while she navigated criminal charges without work authorization or compensation from TLC.
Since then she has had several run-ins with ICE on national television. Most recently, Lima was flagged by ICE and given removal orders pending a trial. Simultaneously, she alleged her contractual relationship with TLC was voided due to her taking her entrepreneurial ventures over to CamSoda, where she was rumored to have made $100,000.
TLC obviously can choose how it would like its brand to be represented. However, when creating a nationwide sensation that places a spotlight on an oft-contested immigration process that foments nativist rhetoric from its viewers, some accountability is in order. Either the network or Sharp Entertainment could address their role in inflating power disparities when the stakes can be as high as detention or deportation. (A rep for TLC says that the network does not comment publicly on any nature of talent and contracts, per company policy.)
Pursuit of the so-called American dream is an ever-shifting landscape — a capricious exercise in game theory where imperialist gatekeepers consistently adjust the terms of engagement depending on their perceived risk of opening their borders to those seeking a new life, whether or not it lies in the arms of a partner. Within 90 Day Fiancé, political context is wilfully deemphasized in favor of championing the less challenging motifs of love and diversity as implicitly inclusive. As Orstein says, “we really do feel it’s perhaps the most diverse show on television, and maybe in the history of television.”
As apolitical as TLC would like the franchise to be, it is a functional impossibility, given the topic matter and context. The jingoistic idea of coming to America “for the right reasons” is buoyed by the conceit that the country requires authentication of love when in truth, it does not. This adjudication of immigrants is ultimately a judgment of someone with no access to separate means of income, family, or other forms of agency upon arrival in the country, and part and parcel of the system that leads to “kids in cages” and “expedited removal” policies that shocked many in the country into nationwide protests.
Cognitive dissonance is baked into TLC’s “Marvel universe.” Instead of confronting what measure of complicity 90 Day Fiancé has for weaving these discussions into the cultural zeitgeist, viewers seem to be more invested in getting a person who they view as unsavory out of sight, out of mind, and ultimately out of American shores. Underneath the well-scored theatrics and entertainment lies a dangerous tale of unethical disruption that enshrouds the love story arc the franchise purports to sell. And when the watch parties come to a close, it is frequently the non-Americans who are left to deal with the fallout.
2020 has been a year plagued by a lack of clarity and direction, with great loss exacerbated by deep systemic inequalities. The troubling conditions, in America, have been buttressed with recent audio confirming that the executive office knew about the ruinous potential of COVID-19, and willfully misled the public. So far, the death toll from the virus has crossed 200,000. Deep fissures in the country’s fabric have been exposed, revealing the urgence of policy around healthcare, immigration, housing, and policing. Amongst all of the noise, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has been at the vanguard, facilitating these conversations on the national stage.
Despite not being a front-runner during primary season, Castro has made waves for framing the immigration conversation around policies such as Section 1325 and 287(g), which criminalizes illegal entry and enforces compulsory collaboration with local law enforcement. Castro focuses on repositioning the narrative of the “American Dream” as one that should be reformed and enabled rather than obstructed, considering the amount of national investment in the flawed precept that we are a country built on the backs of immigrants.
On the policing front, Castro has advocated for policies that, on the debate stage, seemed left of center, but have now shifted to an accepted standard in the ongoing conversation driven by Black activists and the Black Lives Matter movement: demilitarizing the police, establishing databases to track decertified police officers, making disaggregated arrest data publicly available, removing police from student discipline practices, and ending qualified immunity. While few people could have predicted a housing crisis as grave as the one that has befallen us, his platform, framed around guaranteeing housing as a human right, extended the conversation to protections for incarcerated, indigenous, and trans communities, reminding the country that the least protected amongst us are the most imperiled in times of crisis.
Despite Castro’s foresight in shaping current conversations, emphasis on him has been muted. During the DNC, he was not given an independent speaker slot, instead speaking on a panel—an observation further amplified by the lack of Latinx presence. Unfettered, Castro has continued to be an advocate for the Democratic Party and delegate for the Biden campaign, balancing his family life with being an active advocate for the Biden-Harris ticket in the waning weeks of the election.
Complex spoke with Castro about ICE, policing, housing policy, the fight to preserve democracy in the path forward, and whether COVID-19 reframes the approach we should be taking to these areas. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With what’s been happening in Georgia, whistleblower Dawn Wooten alleging unacceptable medical practices in the Irwin County Detention Center facility that she was a contractor at, what do you think people should be considering when examining these sorts of reports and exposes that become sensational? Americans ought to recognize that ICE has been an utter failure. It has a track record of abuse, cruelty, under performance. It’s been an utter disaster as an agency. We also need to separate the idea of enforcement of our immigration laws from ICE. Is there going to be enforcement? Are we ever going to do away with enforcement, totally do away with enforcement of our immigration laws? No. But, does that mean that it ought to look like ICE does? Absolutely not. During the campaign, I called for breaking up ICE, and ensuring that we bring common sense and compassion to our immigration approach. My hope is that we’re going to have an opportunity, starting in 2021, to do that. ICE was created only in 2003—not even 20 years old—so we have an opportunity to create enforcement that actually respects human beings, and also fundamentally is in keeping with our values. That is not ICE.
One of the things that was really dynamic about your immigration platform was that it wasn’t just focused around undocumented immigrants, but also examining and restructuring our broken legal immigration system. Do you think there is a way to re-examine “immigrating to this country the right way,” and how we think about our immigration system as it currently exists? It’s clear that we have to both address the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here and part of the fabric of the nation, and also improve our legal immigration system. Too many people have to wait far too long to become United States citizens. In fact, I’m convinced that more people would try to apply for citizenship in the first place if we had a system that wasn’t broken the way that ours is. We need to stop abusing people who are going through legal means, like requesting asylum. We should be honoring those requests with due consideration, instead of implementing a cruel policy like “Remain in Mexico.” There’s plenty of work we need to do to improve our legal immigration system. If we do that work, we can be a nation that is stronger, respectful of human lives, and ultimately more successful.
I want to pivot to talking a little bit about housing. We are in a unique time that has taken a toll on a lot of us, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis that it’s caused. As the former secretary of housing and urban development, what thoughts do you have about investments we should be making on a local and state level as we are concerned about our health and stability over the coming months—possibly the coming year? We need to do two basic things. In the short term, we need robust, direct rental assistance, and the extension of a nationwide eviction moratorium that’s effective. Not only do we need to ensure that people can stay in their homes right now in the middle of this pandemic, but also that they’re not going to be summarily evicted a few months down the road because they have a lot of back due rent that they’re unable to pay in a lump sum.
In the long term, we need to recommit ourselves as a country to investing in housing that’s affordable to the middle class and to lower-income individuals. We ought to see housing as a human right, make significant investments in creating more housing units throughout this country, and ensure that people can get into those housing units so we get closer to that goal. We’re talking about investment in housing choice vouchers, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, in the home program and in a renter’s tax credit that would ensure people can keep up with rent as it continues to spike across the country. I believe that we need to invest in order to create millions of more units over the next 10 years.
One thing that stood out about your platform was the proposal to explicitly ensure that formerly incarcerated people have housing rights, guaranteeing the rights for trans men and women to have placement in shelters, even the public charge rule [for immigrants]. Do you think that there’s a way to continue to maintain that relevance, as we continue to remind people that housing is a human right? We need to fully enforce the Fair Housing Act, and make a commitment to include everybody in housing opportunity – whether it’s the LGBTQ community, or people of different backgrounds—because too often, even in the year 2020, the color of your skin, your gender identity, or sexual preference affects your housing opportunity and it shouldn’t be that way. In the Obama administration, we were making real progress toward fair housing. Unfortunately, we’ve completely gone backwards during the Trump administration. One of the first orders of business for the next administration when it comes to housing should be to put us back toward a level playing field for everybody.
One of the most disappointing things of this election season is that President Trump is trying to stoke white fear and resentment, by suggesting that the suburbs are going to be overrun with Black Americans, and other people of color that will somehow destroy the suburbs. It is shameful, it is cynical, and I believe that the vast majority of Americans can see through that.
We’re concerned about this destabilization, homelessness, and unemployment largely because of the COVID crisis. Trump had a town hall on September 15—and notably, he had an exchange with Professor Ellesia Blaque around the Affordable Care Act. Do you have any thoughts around what Trump has committed to delivering, what our current citizenship deserves to have as a healthcare service, what the current crisis shows that we need as a populace from a healthcare perspective, and what to focus on in the coming months? Families across the country are rightfully very concerned about healthcare, right now, because they need it and know they’re going to need it in the years to come. At this very moment Donald Trump and his administration are in court to strip away the protections of the Affordable Care Act, including protections that ensure people with preexisting conditions won’t be kicked to the curb by insurers.
We have a very clear choice between a president who wants to do away with the opportunity for millions of Americans to have good healthcare, and has not produced any kind of plan for them to be able to keep their healthcare—he only gives lip service to a plan—and Joe Biden, who worked with Barack Obama to create the greatest advancement in healthcare opportunity that we’ve seen, with tens of millions of people who were able to get healthcare for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act.
When we think about what families need right now in this moment—good healthcare, good job opportunities and small business opportunities, secure housing, and equality—we’re living with an administration who has utterly failed on each of these. I’m convinced that Americans are ready to dream big again about the country that we can be so that we see housing as a human right and healthcare as a human right, and we act in that way. We know that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in a couple of years. But it can happen in the years to come, and there’s no better time to start than right now, when COVID-19 has made so clear that we need to change course. There are too many people getting left behind, getting left out, suffering, who shouldn’t be.
Everyone has had a very robust reaction to the ongoing police violence, but you have a very active platform around demilitarizing the police and tackling qualified immunity. Any thoughts around how we should create more accountability with police unions, police militarization, and creating accountability around their actions, and not losing momentum as we continue to make that a platform for Black and brown communities? We must come to recognize that we don’t have to choose between safe communities and respecting people’s rights, no matter the color of their skin or their background. We can do both of those. We can ensure that there is public safety, but also that just because you’re Black, you’re not going to get treated with excessive force by police or have to speak to your 12 year old son about what to do in a few years if he gets stopped by an officer because you’re worried for his life.
We live in a country that’s better than that. I’m encouraged that cities across the nation have taken up the challenge of re-imagining public safety so that we can do both of those things. Places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and states like Colorado passed sweeping legislation to restrict qualified immunity, increased accountability in policing, and make investments to ensure that no matter who you are, you’re treated the same by police.
I hope that in Washington, DC, the Senate will take up the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, because as Vice President Biden has said, it is a down payment on the change that we need to make, to improve public safety in the years to come.
In September, Castro launched a podcast with Lemonada Media called Our America, which puts a spotlight on vulnerable communities not often addressed in politics.
Originally published for Vulture on September 18th, 2020.
2020 commenced with a great loss in New York’s robust contemporary hip-hop scene: the murder of Canarsie’s prodigal son and prince of Brooklyn drill, Pop Smoke, at just 20 years old. His sudden passing left an indelible vacancy in the city. The loss of one of the booming voices of the New York rap community — whose meteoric career was cut short by a violent end — cratered the community and felt like an overwhelming defeat for one of rap’s newest waves in the city.
However, even a cursory look at the current musical landscape in New York would reveal that there is no dearth of emerging talent across the five boroughs — and not all of it is concentrated in drill. Several niches have developed over the past few years, each with their own distinctive sound. Young talented artists are branching out and blazing trails within the new school, as much of the rest of the country dismissively boxes them in as simply trying to duplicate the sounds of the South. From the small empires being built out of Highbridge to the mantles being passed down in Canarsie, artists are beginning to redefine the soundscapes of New York City — and they are as robust as ever.
The Rise of Brooklyn Drill
While Brooklyn drill might have lost Pop Smoke’s distinctive rumble, several other major players are very much alive and kicking.
Hometown: East Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: As one of the elder statesmen in the drill scene, Fivio’s phonic buoyancy has become his signature: riotous ad-libs and onomatopoeia over AXL Beats’s sweeping and spine-chilling production. Growing up in the same neighborhood as GS9 and the same floor as Rowdy Rebel gave him a front-row seat to the rise of the subgenre. He has built relationships with many of his peers along the way, most notably with Pop Smoke; the frequent collaborators released the popular tracks “Sweetheart,” and the posthumous track “Showin Off Pt. 2.” No matter if he’s on a feature with Drake or Dream Doll, Fivio has made it clear that every studio session of his is a party where he aims to encapsulate his organic kinetic energy and translate that onto the track. He is looking to have a fun time.
That One Song You Might Know: “Big Drip” took Brooklyn by storm in the second half of 2019, quickly becoming a strong contender for New York’s song of the summer. By the next summer, the phrase “Demon Time” would not only become became part of Fivio’s signature lexicon but also a ubiquitous quarantine phrase as droves of enterprising women found eager platforms on Intagram Live — as the song goes, “I fell in love with a lit bitch” — for an entirely different reason.
Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: 22Gz came onto the scene in 2016 with the breakout track “Suburban” — the first track that used UK producer AXL Beats and his signature booming, refracted bass to underscore 22’s violently crisp lyricism. While the foundations of drill have been building in Brooklyn for years, 22 was one of the first to put all of the moving pieces together, collaborating with UK beat-makers and introducing a dance move known as the “Blixky Twirl” that has become ingrained into the DNA of the drill scene. Since then, he has dropped projects that have continued to showcase his sharp and antagonistic skill set, with tracks like “Sniper Gang Freestyle” and “Suburban, Pt 2.”
That One Song You Might Know: “Suburban Pt. 2,” where the track opens: “hoodie on, mask on/strap drawn, tried to run, he ain’t get that far.” The song maximizes the negative space in the beat and the bars to animate the live-wire tension of someone settling a score.
Hometown: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: While fan bases across the country were excited when Travis Scott paired up with Pop Smoke for the chart-topping hit “Gatti,” locals recognized the AXL Beats and 808 Melo co-produced beat immediately. Smoove’L had already reached local notoriety with his anthem “New Apollos” and its infectious crooning introduction, reaching 1 million hits before getting pulled off of YouTube for copyright infringement after the beat was acquired by Scott. This led to conflict between Smoove’L, Pop Smoke, and Casanova: His track with Casanova, “Demons & Devils,”was promptly responded to by Pop with the song “Christopher Walking.”
That One Song You Might Know: “New Apollos,” where he subverts the conventions of the ominous bass that anchors Brooklyn drill by adding a melodic framework to it.
Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: Despite his young age, Sheff G is in many ways considered one of Brooklyn drill’s OGs, helping mold the sound with songs such as “No Surburban” that have since become foundational to the subgenre. In the three years since, Sheff has grown in stature, frame, and repute — and has expanded his sonic skill set to match his brand, bucking the trendy UK-inflected production sounds in favor of the more nuanced work of Great John and Ayy Walker, allowing his lyrical dexterity to be the main attraction.
That One Song You Might Know: “We Getting Money,” an Ayy Walker production that makes clever use of Hiromi Ōta’s Japanese pop classic “Akai High Heel” to craft the bombastic hit.
Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: As Sheff G’s right-hand man, Sleepy Hallow has been his frequent collaborator, beginning with the “Panic” seriesParts1-4 and continuing with Flatbush favorites such as “Molly” and “Water.” It was “Deep End Freestyle,” however, that broke him out into his own mold on his project Sleepy Hallow Presents: Sleepy Hallow For President.
The Thing He’s Known For: A close friend of Pop Smoke’s and collaborator who has been there since the beginning of his rap career, he has proceeded to carry the torch of the Woo legacy in his wake, with tracks that have made waves in the streets such as “Woo Forever” and “Who Run the City.”
That One Song You Might Know: “Who Run the City,” an anthemic track filmed in front of the mural of Pop Smoke that was originally painted on 82nd Street and Flatlands Avenue in Canarsie.
Drill is far from the only sound coming out of the city — there are other artists just starting to carve out their own niche to overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Hometown: Dyckman, NY
The Thing He’s Known For: While Dyckman’s soundscape is frequently associated with the sounds of merengue, bachata, and dembow — think Meek Mill’s “Uptown Vibes” — Puerto Rico native Slayter is here to upend all of that, bringing his steely grit that’s more often associated with his neighbors in the Bronx. His latest project, World Got Me Fucked Up, Vol 1., features appearances from powerhouses such as Benny the Butcher, Smoke DZA, 22Gz, and Sada Baby.
That One Song You Might Know: “Mhm,” an ominous and frenetic track with production reminiscent of the atmospheric sounds of navigating the aboveground 1 train late at night.
That One Song You Might Know: Pinnochio, which became a dance craze that crossed over into TikTok fame.
Hometown: Clinton Hill, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: Building highly anticipated buzz for his mixtape Hood Favorite with tracks such as Thousand Ways, Fashion and Adlibs, Critch has continued to rise in cultural resonance, with hits such as “Dreams In A Wraith.” Critch has stood out for his ability to comfortably phase in and out of melody and straight to your neck bars, getting the cosigns of French Montana and Fabulous on his track “Try It,” the latter of whom he came up idolizing.
That One Song You Might Know: “Ego,”a bombastic song with a lengthy hook that leaked and got play on Hot97 before it was an official track.
The Around the Way Girls
It has been a landmark year for women in rap, with newcomers like Megan Thee Stallion making their mark and established legend Nicki Minaj finally grabbing hold of the elusive white whale that was a No. 1 hit. Locally, women have also been preparing for the spotlight. The few below are just some of the immensely skilled women hard at work within the five boroughs.
Hometown: East New York, Brooklyn
The Thing She’s Known For: Young M.A stunned the world with her fury, grief, and technique in her 2014 “Chiraq” freestyle.Since then, she’s gone on to have a chart-topping hit with “OOOUUU,” and features and freestyles that continue to showcase the depth of her skill as an unprecedented and openly queer rapper.
That One Song You Might Know: “BIG,”where she stays in the pocket of Mike Zombie’s “Started From the Bottom” style minimalist production — dynamic drum kits over more muted ambient piano sounds — while making open overtures about her sexual and material desires.
Hometown: Harlem, NY
The Thing She’s Known For: A theater kid who split her life between Harlem and the Lower East Side, Nokia’s music has touched different eras and styles. But whether it’s the identity-forward anthems of “Brujas,” and “Tomboy,” from 1992 Deluxe, the emo detour of A Girl Cried Red, or the more stripped down, New Orleans jazz horns–dominant “Sugar Honey Iced Tea,” the polymorphic artist’s bars are always consistent.
That One Song You Might Know: “I Like Him,”a luxurious and sassy track reveling in Nokia’s brattier side.
The Thing She’s Known For: Take the genre-blending best elements of Azealia Banks’s style, and bbymutha’s knack for creating fluid rhyme schemes that wrap themselves around the beat and encase them in a husky tone and swag slightly reminiscent of Foxy Brown, and you get DonMonique, who broke onto the scene in 2015 with the synth-infused minimalist track “Pilates.” After a three-year hiatus, she returned to music, dropping her Black Kate Moss project, and most recently interpolated Beyonce’s hook from her classic B’day track in her new single “Giving Body.”
That One Song You Might Know: “Pilates,” the sultry reference to illicit substances with various young white models as the product.
Hometown: Edenwald Houses, The Bronx
The Thing She’s Known For: Since initially coming into notoriety on the Bad Girls Club, Dream Doll has gone full force ahead, initially breaking into music with “Everything Nice,” a coquettish, saccharine trap tune that quickly became infectious. Since then, she has proved her chops time and again — after an impressive showing in a diss to current industry persona non grata Tory Lanez, she stepped up again in the Hitmaka’s “Thot Box (Remix)” and Bandhunta Izzy’s “Vibes,” showcasing her ability to bring uptown grit and energy to her delivery and flow while still maintaining her trademark babydoll sex appeal.
That One Song You Might Know: “Thot Box (Remix),” where Dream Doll held her own against Young M. A, Dreezy, Mulatto, and Chinese Kitty.
Hometown: The Bronx
The Thing She’s Known For: Quay’s debut project, Transphobic, is as skillful as it is subversive with hard-hitting rhymes that push boundaries and reframe sex positivity within the framework of transinclusivity — with the distinctive drawl of a New Yorker. Her biggest single, “Queen of this Shit,” has been added to HBO Series Euphoria’s season one soundtrack and continues to showcase her versatility with a club rap track.
That One Song You Might Know: “Decline Him,”her largest hit off of Transphobic, filled with delightfully aggressive couplets.
Hometown: The South Bronx
The Thing She’s Known For: With her distinctive, husky timbre, Maliibu gained local recognition with songs “Give Her Some Money” and “The Count” — the latter earning her fast comparisons to lyrical powerhouse Foxy Brown. Her interplay between her more combative and seductress personas make a potent combination for her artistry, and put her on Nicki Minaj’s radar early on.
That One Song You Might Know: “Give Her Some Money,”which made its TV premiere on season 3 of Insecure.
The Thing She’s Known For: When everyone was doing freestyles over “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, Melii’s blend of tender vocals and fearless bars quickly made her a viral star. Not long after, the Dominican-American followed up with the bilingual track “Icey,”showcasing her dexterity at seamlessly easing in and out between the two modalities.
That One Song You Might Know: “HML” featuring A Boogie wit da Hoodie, an uptown collab that showcases the two crooners at their best.
The Boys of Highbridge
The notoriously treacherous steps on 1165 Shakespeare Avenue became ground zero for a new tourist spot in 2019: thanks to the Oscar-winning film Joker’sacclaimed dance scene on that very flight of stairs, fans came in droves to capture themselves in a corner of the South Bronx rarely tread upon by outsiders, just on the other side of Yankee Stadium. That same neighborhood, Highbridge, is responsible for some of the biggest sounds coming out of the city right now. No discussion of the current sounds of New York hip-hop is complete without covering the talent coming out of Highbridge the Label.
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie
Hometown: Highbridge, the Bronx
The Thing He’s Known For: Since coming on the scene with his debut mixtape Artist in 2016, A Boogie has remained at the forefront of the charts, interweaving his melodic stylings into hits such as “My Shit,” “Look Back At It,” “Swerving,” and “Drowning,” pulling musical references from everywhere from Craig David to Michael Jackson. Since then, he has also expanded his imprint, Highbridge the Label, with artists Don Q and Trap Manny, and cleared a path for others to follow in his lead, pulling musical references from everywhere from Craig David to Michael Jackson.
That One Song You Might Know: “Startender,” a three-minute smash and follow-up to “Drowning” for his sophomore album, layered with local N.Y. references (“I’m feeling like I’m Biggavelli”). It cemented A Boogie’s ability to continue to create hits for his core fanbase as he released bigger hits like “Look Back At It.”
That One Song You Might Know: “Bag On Me,” a song about getting to the money with grand theft auto concept music video.
The Rap Songbirds
The line between rapping and singing is blurrier than ever in 2020, with some of rap’s biggest artists setting a hot 16 to a harmony.
Hometown: The Bronx
The Thing He’s Known For: Many people heard Tjay for the first time on Polo G’s 2019 hit, “Pop Out.” In the short time since, his trajectory has been an astronomical climb, with features on Pop Smoke’s “War” (and later having him and Fivio on his own track, “Zoo York”) and his follow-up tracks, “F.N.” and “Brothers.” Declaring himself the King of New York, he has drawn comparisons to his fellow Bronxite, A Boogie, which he has bristled at.
That One Song You Might Know: ”Brothers,” a somber three-and-a-half minute journey through the trials and tribulations in TJay’s life in the South Bronx prior to becoming a breakout star.
Hometown: Springfield Gardens, Queens
The Thing He’s Known For: With huge hits such as “My Time,” “Love Me,” and “Count Me Out” placing Lil Tecca on the map in 2019, as well as his debut album, out today, the young Jamaican-American artist’s style of compelling YA fantasy narrative storytelling set to a melody draws influences from everywhere from Lil Wayne to Lil Durk. Having also been compared to A Boogie, he welcomes the association, ultimately joining forces with him on the track “Somebody.”
That One Song You Might Know: “Ransom,” which peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard charts.
Hometown: Crown Heights, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: Hip-hop’s newest romantic troubadour, J.I. splashed onto the scene with wildly popular songs like “Love Scars,” “Used To,” and “On Me.” His capability of speaking to heartbreak and relationships at such a young age got the attention of none other than Drake himself, who has featured a few of his songs on his Instagram Live sessions.
That One Song You Might Know: “Need Me,” a crooning tune whose nostalgic use of Mya’s “Best of Me (Remix)” as a sample belies the more intense nature of the lyrics.
Hometown: East New York, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: Jay Gwuapo is infamously known as the person who was responsible for getting Pop Smoke into his first studio session and out into the world. He is also a dynamic talent himself — his project From Nothing Pt. 1 landed in 2019 and took on a life of its own, establishing his place amongst the cannon of other crooners throughout the city.
That One Song You Might Know: “Downbad,”his biggest hit off of From Nothing Pt. 1.
Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: An artist with a strong run of street anthems, you can go anywhere from “Set Tripping” to “Don’t Run (Remix)” and “So Brooklyn” to get a feel for the local hits that gained him notoriety —but if you ask him now, he’ll tell you that he has calmed down considerably from his earlier tracks.
Hometown: Harlem, NY
The Thing He’s Known For: Taking over moshpits and clubs around the country with his stormy 2018 hit “Mo Bamba” followed by “LiveSheckWes Die SheckWes” off of his freshman project, Mudboy. His precipitous rise in the industry was stymied, however, by allegations that he was physically abusive to former partner Justine Skye.
Hometown: East Flatbush, Brooklyn
The Thing He’s Known For: Rowdy’s brother and the hidden gem of GS9, the track “Double It” showcases his full range of potential and what he’s absorbed while watching his older brother and friends coming up in the game.
Correction, September 29: This piece previously referred to J.I. by his former name, “J.I. the Prince of NY.” He has since has shortened his name, and we have updated the post to reflect the change.
The ’90s ushered in both the rise of the South, which demanded acknowledgment of its contributions to hip-hop, and the emergence of the video vixen. It was only natural, then, that the Roc-A-Fella duo of Dame Dash and Jay-Z would extend an olive branch to UGK, one of the fastest-rising duos from Texas at the time, to collaborate on the biggest single of Jay-Z’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. The song almost didn’t happen, however: Reluctant to collaborate with Jay, Pimp C didn’t submit his verse until the 11th hour, even delaying participating in his now-infamous music-video scene with Gloria Velez. (He ultimately had to film in Miami in lieu of Trinidad’s Carnival, the backdrop for the rest of the crew.)
With one single and a comically bizarre video, N.O.R.E. not only established himself as a viable solo act after Capone-N-Noreaga but put the still-obscure Virginia production duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, known as the Neptunes, on the map — gaining them the attention of none other than Michael Jackson. This song single-handedly created waves across genres, and Pharrell would go on to lay his fingerprints across some of pop culture’s biggest hits from Britney to Beyoncé, and more or less trademarked N.O.R.E.’s “what what!” catchphrase as a New York rap siren.
With iconic Buckwild sampling production that still gets played out of car speakers during Harlem and Bronx summers, the assist from the legendary Diggin’ in the Crates Crew flipped François Valéry’s “Joy” to give Black Rob his biggest hit as a lead artist to date, filled with stream-of-consciousness ad hominems.
Junior M.A.F.I.A. was a hip-hop collective of young adults from Brooklyn who were brought together and molded by the visionary eye of the Notorious B.I.G. and made their own mark with their debut album Conspiracy. They also introduced the world to Lil’ Kim — a young woman with magnetism and a commanding flow that consistently placed her toe to toe with her male peers. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Get Money,” an enthralling duet with a counterpunch, timbre, and cadence that has her four-foot-11-inch frame at parity with one of the best storytellers in hip-hop history, Biggie himself.
In New York, your area code is just as fundamental to your hometown pride as any other locality marker. No one knows that better than Harlem-raised Azealia Banks, who wrote the hit in reference to Manhattan’s premier three digits while living on Dyckman. Banks burst onto the scene at the top of the decade as a boundary-breaking force, interpolating her skillful raps with beat structures emerging from ballroom culture — no one else does Hot 97 Summer Jam and Mermaid Ball in the same day — while sharing just a flash of the vocal dexterity that is part and parcel of her avant-garde sonic universe.
“Ill Na Na” is a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in hip-hop. It’s like listening to a time capsule where Foxy — a spitfire out of Brooklyn who stunned the scene with her verse on LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya (Remix)” as a teenager — and Lil’ Kim are still friends and collaborators, and women were going platinum off physical sales on their debut albums. A brazen Inga Marchand made her stamp, inverting misogynist tropes into husky, unapologetic rejoinders anchored by the closest approximation of a heartthrob in ’90s rap, Method Man.
Stepping out from Junior M.A.F.I.A. with the mentorship of the Notorious B.I.G., Kim sought to continue to subvert the expectations of women in rap with the unblushing, aggressive lyricism of her debut solo album, Hard Core. “Crush on You” made it clear that her role was not to follow a blueprint but to stencil a new template — joining forces with stylist Misa Hylton to pair her and Lil’ Cease’s lavishly bawdy verses with richly pigmented ensembles and visuals, down to the matching wigs. With one video, Kim melded street fashion with hip-hop on the mainstream stage.
From Despondent To Defiant, Dua Saleh’s ‘body cast’ Stomps On Everyday Injustice
May 30, 2020
Dua Saleh — Black, nonbinary, Sudanese and Minnesotan — is driven by the generative work within their communities. They released “body cast” at the close of May, stating that they “intended to save it for a project in the future, but I can’t wait that long with what is happening in my city of Minneapolis.” Over sparse production, they pack in dense couplets, wailing, “Lately I’ve had plaster on my mind / County ain’t on s*** they got bodies on the line / Lately I’ve been analyzing time / Y’all been dodging cameras like they bullets over crime.” In the course of two and half minutes, they veer from despondent to defiant, sinking into angst only to rise back up in rage. The final moments include audio from a viral video of Angela Whitehead asserting her right to refuse the police entry into her property — a vignette that is breathtaking for its utter recalcitrance and almost mythic in its seeming implausibility.
Originally, the song came from their grief over how the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile were handled. The single’s artwork presents a towering list of names of Black lives taken by the hands of police, with George Floyd and Clark at the base — there’s an overwhelming and agonizing sense that it barely scratches the surface.
Dua Saleh doesn’t identify as an activist, but is informed by their sociopolitical framing of community and amplifying community calls for liberation. Stated simply in their own words: “The arts are instrumental avenues for healing and justice. The arts can be used to center the narratives of people at the margins of society. It provides us supplements of joy and gives us mantras to build upon a movement. The role of the artist is to be there for the community in the same way that others are. We all have a role in our collective liberation.”
With A Nod To N.W.A. And Nipsey Hussle, Rapper YG Says ‘FTP’
June 2, 2020
In 2016, the Compton-based rapper joined forces with Nipsey Hussle to release the DJ Swish-produced anthem, “FDT (F*** Donald Trump).” Filming the music video on Crenshaw and 71st in solidarity with the local Mexican community, the music video opens with a message: “As young people with an interest in the future of America…we have to exercise our intelligence and choose who leads us into it wisely. 2016 will be a turning point in this country’s history… the question is…in which direction will we go?” Both spontaneous and earnest in spirit, the homegrown authenticity of the musical uprising caught on like wildfire, prompting censorship attempts by the Secret Service.
Four years later, YG aimed to recapture the energy with “FTP (F*** the Police).” Both an expansion of the protest cadence that he had created in his collaborations with Nipsey as well as a nod to the N.W.A classic, the beats are similar, down to the Swish-tapped production. The video opens with a somber, poignant quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on a black screen as the performance is interspersed with actions of protest, closing with a monologue from Sedan Smith.
There is something remarkably grim, however, to watch a staged spectacle being put on in the center of protests for Black lives. Celebrity appearances are flagged in the video with the same poignance as burning cop cars; organized video ops of empowering chants are superimposed with spontaneous bursts of grisly police brutality, giving a tonal whiplash that is hard to acclimate to. In the wake of criticism from both supporters and peers, YG, for his part, has stood behind his message and march as advocacy, documenting his protest as a part of history. “FDT” has been identified as a song that defined a decade; in this moment, as people continue to fight for their right to exist, to have their humanity be recognized. Only time will tell whether the dramaturgy of “FTP” will be held in the same regard.
DaBaby Jumps On Black Lives Matter Bandwagon With ‘Rockstar (BLM Remix)’
June 12, 2020
DaBaby’s omnipresence over the last year threads a thin line between overnight celebrity and over saturation; he drops new musical content almost as often as his altercations and antics make their way into the headlines. Nothing is more emblematic of this delicate dance than the rollout of the song “Rockstar,” originally a collaboration with Roddy Rich centered around largesse and extravagance.
During June’s BET Awards, however, he premiered a new version of the song, titled the “BLM Remix.” DaBaby performs the opening verse lying on the ground, under the knee of a faceless white body, tying his own life’s trials and tribulations with those of George Floyd. It’s a startling image that strikes a dissonant tone: DaBaby invokes Floyd, a man unable to breathe during the last moments of life, as the rapper’s own words escalate in volume. He raps about his vilification by hometown authorities and challenging their right to seizure of his property; he boasts about buying a Lamborghini as an action of resistance as opposed to a transparent display of grandeur. But the concept of rockstardom, as nebulous as that may be, is not affixed to the average Black person in America nor is that dynamic present in average interactions with law enforcement. Ultimately, this is why fastening “BLM Remix” to the track flies in the face of the song’s greater temperament. With this new framework, the hook (“with the pistol on my hip like I’m a cop”) becomes increasingly discomfiting the more you listen.
On ‘Perfect Way To Die,’ Alicia Keys Attempts To Approximate Black Anxiety
June 19, 2020
“Of course, there is NO perfect way to die,” Alicia Keys said upon releasing the song. “That phrase doesn’t even make sense. Just like it doesn’t make sense that there are so many innocent lives that should not have been taken from us due to the destructive culture of police violence.” This tweet is indicative of the contradictions that burden the song: “Perfect Way to Die” says a lot while saying nothing at all, aiming for somewhere between metaphor and allegory and ultimately landing somewhere around vague fiction. The song alludes to Sandra Bland and Michael Brown, but in a fabricated narrative about an unremarkable day that descends into violence, chaos and grief.
The lyrics, in isolation, technically speak towards the current moment gripping Black America — there are references made to blood in the streets, flashing police lights, a mother’s pain and unfulfilled promises — and they are underscored by a solemn piano ballad that has become a signature of Keys. Despite hitting all of the marks, the end result falls flat — aimless, unfocused and untethered to the palpable, defiant energy of the current youth-driven movement. In an uprising, there is no such thing as a perfect martyr, nor is there a perfect approach to unrest, but the art generated during this time should strive to reflect the energy of the moment.
Originally published for Complex on August 28th, 2020.
A little over five years have passed since Bree Newsome commanded the nation’s newsfeeds with the insurgent act of stripping the South Carolina State House of its Confederate adornments. Despite a shift in administration, a viral pandemic and media cycles that have wildly accelerated in the wake of record unemployment and quarantine, as Newsome herself does not hesitate to point out, the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. “The system itself is the problem,” she explains. “I don’t think that the existing system can bring solutions because it’s not broken.”
In the time since her arrest, Newsome has remain unbowed, committing to coalition work in her current residence of North Carolina—such as the Housing Justice Coalition in Charlotte and its state-level campaigns such as #NeedAHome2StayAtHome. She continues to use her social and digital platforms to try to effect grassroots disruption. Simultaneously, monuments around the country—Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Virginia, and Christopher Columbus in Boston, for example—are toppling at a much higher rate than when Newsome initially made headlines. For some, this was a harbinger of an uprising that has yet to fully materialize, while the ever-looming conversation around the November 2020 election casts its shadow over daily protests and steadily increasing unemployment numbers.
While the revolution is being televised and going viral around the world, certain demands remain of major interest to people across the country. At the crux of that lies access to land as a historic means of wealth-building, and housing as a human right that grants, among other things, voting eligibility—a framework that Newsome is tackling head on, saying, “I got focused on housing because it’s one of those issues that touches everybody.”
Complex spoke with the activist and organizer about coalition-building, the destruction of the racist effigies embedded into Americana architecture, and her highest priorities in the coming months as the country struggles to confront one of the worst crises in contemporary history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What does movement work look like for you present day? Everybody’s reflection of that is different. The community of activists in Charlotte have gotten really good at doing rapid-response short-term coalition-building to respond to whatever the government has done. To really go proactive, to really start asserting our own agenda, requires deeper coalition, more sustained organization. That’s how I got involved in housing rights—in the aftermath of the uprising that happened in Charlotte in 2016. Charlotte is like every other major city right now where we have mass displacement going on, gentrification, the cost of living is skyrocketing, wages aren’t keeping up. I’m working at a statewide level in North Carolina, just trying to stop these evictions and utility cut-offs.
The conversation around the need to defund and abolish police is still a new concept for a lot of folks. They still don’t quite understand that concept, like how we could have a society without police forces, but everybody understands that the rent is too high. But of course that intersects with policing all these other issues—that’s what you can bring everybody to the table around.
According to a new Bloomberg statistic, one in four New Yorkers have not paid rent since March because they couldn’t afford to. Regulations in New York are in place where they can’t evict you legally, but they can place [judgments] for back pay. While you can at least stay in the apartment, your credit will ultimately be ruined. Can you speak about that? None of what you just mentioned is sustainable. We are definitely headed towards a greater crash than what we saw in 2008. You can put one person into bankruptcy. You can’t put 40 million people into bankruptcy and not crash the entire financial market.
A major disconnect between the people and the politics is one of the things that the housing crisis has made even clearer. There are millions of people facing eviction right now, and from the way that these politicians are acting around this issue, you would not think they saw the same thing. I think it just shows how this is something that doesn’t touch them—they have health care, they have housing, you know what I mean? They’re so disconnected from the reality of how many other people are living, I don’t think that they really recognize just how wide that wealth inequality is. The politicians are generally not able to respond because they’re so disconnected from that experience.
Trump admitted that he doesn’t care about USPS, even though mail-in voting has become a priority with the pandemic. Considering everything with regards to trying to maintain housing for people and the criticality of having addresses and the mail-in voting falling into that—how much of a priority should people make the mail-in voting component from a policy and advocacy perspective? The USPS situation is very serious because we need a national postal service. That’s also just an extension of the whole conservative movement’s attack on public services, period. It’s tied to the elections, but it’s also just about this whole effort to try and privatize everything. That’s why having a systemic analysis is really important—because then you understand the throughline with all of those things and how all of those things are connected.
That said, I don’t think we’re going to be able to rely on the mail-in ballot, considering how the Trump administration has a stranglehold on it right now. They’re getting reports of mail being stacked up in certain places, folks are not getting their mail on time—if they’re already able to do that, then who knows what they’ll be to do with these ballots? We should also recognize that the United States Postal Service employs a lot of Black people. I don’t know what it’s like at your post office, but when I go up to my post office, it’s mostly Black women working there. So that’s also really an attack on jobs for us.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this year alone, over 50 monuments [were] removed. In 2019, 16 monuments were removed. Prior to that, it was lower. The numbers are accelerating at a rapid rate, and we’ve seen some of the higher-profile ones on TV—of course yours was done on live TV five years ago. From your perspective, does this need to be highlighted, or do we need to focus more so on the on-the-ground work that people are doing? We want to be careful, especially as the idea of taking down these monuments becomes more mainstream. The establishment will try to co-opt it and repackage it in a certain kind of way. We have to be careful that we don’t allow them to do that, because what they’ll do is take the monuments down and say, “Oh, we’ve solved racism. Let’s carry on.”
At the same time, the monuments are significant, or else it wouldn’t be such an issue. There wouldn’t be such a showdown over whether or not to take it down. You wouldn’t have people fighting so vehemently to keep these Confederate monuments in place because they do mean something. It’s an ideological battle. There’s a reason why, particularly throughout the South, in front of every county courthouse, you have this same Confederate soldier monument. It’s supposed to send a message that even though the Confederacy lost the war, white power is still the order of the day in the South.
I don’t see a scenario where all of these issues are resolved, we’re on the other side of systemic racism, and we still have monuments of the Confederacy up. Erecting the monuments was part of the colonization process all around the world—a part of the way that they indicated that we are in control and the way to constantly send the message that they’re in control. So that is a part of the process. Taking down monuments to [Christopher] Columbus and these other colonial figures is a part of the decolonization process.
What do you think is different now versus in 2015 that makes the political class even more willing to even entertain the conversation around removing monuments or removing flags? What happened was Minneapolis rose up and burned a police precinct, [and] that’s what scared them. If you go back to 2015 and how things built up to even when I took the flag down, it was a series of events building upon each other. What happened this time was the Ahmaud Arbery case [happened], and you had some other cases that were brewing in different localities.
On that Memorial Day weekend, you had Amy Cooper, and then right on the heels of that, we had George Floyd. People started protesting. What I think was a key turning point was when they finally arrested the first officer. At that point, the establishment was hoping, “OK, we’ve arrested the officer. Calm down, everybody. Go inside.” That didn’t happen, and it hasn’t happened. People have been protesting since that time, nonstop, consecutively. When that kind of thing starts happening, then they start making concessions.
I think that’s one of the things that we can see now playing out, right? Even now, as the protests have persisted, you don’t see that in the media, as a point of discourse. Mm-hmm. The other thing I have pointed out is this whole narrative around peaceful protests. When it all first started out, people were peacefully protesting and the cops were tear-gassing them. The establishment was not out in front saying, “Oh, don’t tear gas the protestors.” People started looting, they started burning things down, and then the establishment was, “Oh, no, we embrace peaceful protest.” Their primary concern is always commerce and continuing with capitalism and the status quo, everyday business, and protecting property. That’s always the primary concern above anything else.
We talked about taking down monuments earlier, but what about erecting new monuments? Conversations that activists and the people have a lot of times are about supplanting white supremacist notions with Black excellence. From Kehinde Wiley’s anti-Confederate sculpture (“Rumors of War”) to the discourse about putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—do you have any thoughts on whether or not we should go out of our way to build monuments to our Black American historical figures? I actually saw that Kehinde Wiley piece when it was in Times Square. I thought it was a really powerful statement. At the same time, I do think that there is something really valid about these critiques about replacing white everything with Black people. What does it mean to take the same types of monuments that white people have created and replace them with Black people? Are we really going deep enough in terms of critiquing and dismantling the system? Or are we just trying to replace white emperors with Black emperors?
There’s power in naming our heroes and lifting them up. We don’t have many monuments to Black people or women—especially Black women—like, anywhere. If it weren’t significant, then it wouldn’t be an issue, right? I remember when people were like, “Oh, don’t just put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—what is that doing? How does that address capitalism?” That’s true, but at the same time, if it didn’t have any power, then they wouldn’t have any problem with doing it. The reason that they don’t do that is because they don’t want people thinking about this revolutionary figure. Imagine if every time you saw a $20 bill, you saw Harriet Tubman and you’re reminded of slavery. You’re reminded of how we’re still struggling.
There’s value in it, but I don’t want us to over-prioritize that above addressing the material conditions of our people—because, again, what the establishment will do is say, “OK, yeah, we’re going to take down a Columbus statue, put up a Harriet Tubman statue, take down this statue, put up a Frederick Douglass statue,” [and] that will become the project while people are still homeless. People are still not going to have living wages, and that [ends up] becoming the new neoliberal project.
We’re in this space where there’s such a small slice of the historical canon dedicated to Black history within American history. What’s the ethical way to declare more space without just feeding the wheels of empire? We can think outside of the box more. Instead of creating a monument, what if it’s a park that has fruit trees and we name that after a Black [historical] figure. Instead of it being a monument to somebody, instead of it being this stone thing that looks exactly like what the colonizers built, it’s something that is more reflective of our culture.
They just renamed a road in Chicago after Ida B. Wells, [and] that’s powerful. You see that, and you’re like, “Well, who’s Ida B. Wells?” If you didn’t know, you’re going to learn. It’s going to be a reminder of that history.