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Skooly’s pandemic album release party didn’t feel like a pandemic event

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Waiting for the documentary to start

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

The medical and music industries might be currently debating whether there’s a safe way to throw shows during a pandemic, and Georgia’s live performance venues, nightclubs, and bars are closed through at least the end of the month, as ordered by Governor Brian Kemp. But Atlanta rapper Skooly, whose first taste of Billboard success was 2009’s “My Patna Dem” (as part of the group Rich Kidz), still had a new album to promote.

On Thursday, Skooly invited fans to Starlight Drive-In to preview Nobody Likes Me hours before its midnight release. One of Starlight’s screens showed a short documentary, as fans listened the album in its entirety through their car radios. Skooly announced the event Monday, the same day the state of Arkansas hosted America’s first pandemic concert, with capacity reduced by 80 percent. The promo flyer acknowledged the awkward timing for an album drop: “Come enjoy new music from Skooly the safest way possible: from your car.” But the release party didn’t feel like a pandemic event, not with the large show of support and near-complete lack of face masks.

By 8 p.m., fans driving Honda Civics, Dodge Chargers, and an Hyundai Infiniti G37S with a “HUNCHO” license plate spent up to 20 minutes waiting to drive barely 500 feet to Starlight’s entrance. One security guard wore a Skooly-branded balaclava. But when a driver asked him for instructions, he peeled it off halfway to actually speak. Another unmasked member of Skooly’s street team handed out commemorative Styrofoam cups and popcorn boxes. People pulled into the lot and formed makeshift rows across parking spots facing the single screen airing the documentary. It was up to the crowd to keep a safe distance, whether between cars or from other human beings.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Lines of cars wait to enter Starlight Drive-In.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
A member of Skooly’s team hands out promotional cups and popcorn buckets.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In AtlantaAnd when left to their own devices, in the 90 minutes they spent waiting for the event to begin, the crowd didn’t. People wandered around the lot. They sat on their car hoods and rooftops, taking in the clear skies. They mingled to cars blasting Skooly’s breakout hits from when he was part of Rich Kidz, and making the 25-year-old rapper “the living thread that connects trap and ‘ringtone rap’ to the viscous sing-song variety of today,” as Briana Younger wrote for Pitchfork in 2018. At sunset, the scene—mostly 20-somethings who likely remember when Rich Kidz was discovered by T.I.’s Grand Hustle at Club Crucial ten years ago—was as breezy and relaxed as an American Eagle ad.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
The snack bar was closed, but the event featured a food truck for fans.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Fans at the Nobody Likes Me release party

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly also didn’t acknowledge the current health crisis. The venue choice also didn’t feel like a concession, not when 2 Chainz—who signed Skooly to his T.R.U. imprint in 2015—specializes in this sort of publicity stunt, like the Pink Trap House for 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. In the short documentary, seemingly before shelter-at-home policies began in Georgia, family friends in Bankhead, where Skooly grew up, vouch for how he was the first to make trap music go melodic—a gripe of his since he went solo five years ago. The sullen Nobody Likes Me is another bid for this former child star to be taken seriously as a grown artist and 2020 XXL Freshman Class contender. He breaks apart the pop-R&B-rap fusion that made him famous at 15, going toe-to-toe with Lil Baby one moment (“Neva Know”) and crooning to a harp in another (“Genocide”), as if to show versatility.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Skooly on top of a car at the Nobody Likes Me album release party

Photograph by Nali/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Fans lining up to see Skooly

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

After the screen faded to black, the true celebration began, as Skooly popped up below for an impromptu meet-and-greet. A video camera trailed him as fans cheered him on. A few yards away, near Starlight’s still-closed snack bar, about two dozen fans—almost none of them masked—started singing and dancing to songs spanning his career, like his feature on the late Bankroll Fresh’s “Take Over Your Trap.”

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Skooly sporting a Louis Vuitton-print face mask

Photograph by Nali/E&C Photography

This was a sign that Skooly doesn’t need to seek out validation in his hometown. But it also confirmed our current state with coronavirus. On paper, socially distanced concerts are a necessary compromise for a live music industry that essentially shut down when the pandemic began and for artists who rely on money-making tours in the age of marginal streaming royalties. But with all this fanfare, Skooly and his followers made clear they didn’t want a new normal. The night’s biggest selling point was recalling a time before self-quarantine. It was pure nostalgia.

Could the next big K-pop star be a student from Atlanta?

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YMG Entertainment K Pop
Trinity Nguyen, Anthony Hong, Giselle Lin, and Justin Hong

Photograph by Corey Nickols

In the mid-1980s, when Heather Kim and her brother were in grade school, they spent evenings at their parents’ truck-stop restaurant off Moreland Avenue. At night, the diner would morph into a hangout spot for Korean Americans, and their father—a guitarist who sometimes played with Lee Mi-ja, one of South Korea’s most famous singers, during Atlanta performances—would host impromptu jam sessions. “At the time, [Atlanta’s] Korean population was, like, 100,” Kim says. “I think he brought the entire community to his club.” The siblings were supposed to be sleeping in the kitchen, but sometimes, they couldn’t help but peek from behind the swinging door and watch the show. No one in Kim’s family, least of all herself, realized these scenes were a glimpse into her future.

Kim’s parents decided to get out of the entertainment business after only a couple of years, especially after they got robbed by gang members toting M16s. They steered their children away from the music industry, too. “My parents held very high expectations of me: You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessperson,” Kim says now. When she enrolled in college, she gave up spending Friday nights at a Korean nightclub in Doraville and turned to studying. At Georgia Tech, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, then later an MBA. By 2018, Kim had settled into corporate America, working in risk management for a bank.

But that summer, a visit to her parents’ native land rekindled her love of K-pop—a type of popular music originating in early ’90s South Korea that presents various musical genres in a characteristically choreographed, upbeat style. If I ever won the lottery, I would start my own label, she mused. When she got back to the States, she decided to give her dream a try. In January 2019, Kim held a press conference in Norcross to announce the launch of YMG Entertainment—claiming to be the first K-pop label out of metro Atlanta, home to 51,000 Korean Americans.

When Billboard created its K-pop 100 chart in 2011, the U.S. music industry regarded the category as a niche genre. But the following year, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” set a YouTube record for most views. Now, K-pop groups land on Billboard charts and perform at Coachella. Last summer, Lil Nas X tapped RM, a member of platinum-selling boy band BTS, for an “Old Town Road” remix. The language barrier isn’t an issue when the music—with its dizzying suites of genres as wide-ranging as EDM, hip-hop, and folk and a fanbase more rabid than Beatlemania—is this infectious.

Leading up to the founding of YMG—which stands for Yuri Music Group and is named after Kim’s daughter—Kim kept thinking about the moment that some critics consider the birth of modern K-pop: Seo Taiji and Boys rapping and dancing to Flavor Flav samples in the group’s 1992 TV debut. For Kim, then around 12 years old, that was music she “understood”—a departure from trot, the more traditional Korean tunes of her parents’ generation.

YMG Entertainment K Pop
Top row, from left, are performers Trinity Nguyen, Anthony Hong, Giselle Lin, and Justin Hong. In the front row are executive producer Mack Woodward and label owner Heather Kim.

Photograph by Corey Nickols

Kim, who is keeping her day job and funding the startup with her own savings, says her parents were surprised by her foray into entertainment. But, the 41-year-old music executive notes, “They fully support me because I don’t come to them for money.” In fact, they reached out to old industry friends, who helped connect Kim to potential mentors like Cho Yu-Myeong, founder of the South Korean-based K-pop label YMC Entertainment. Eventually, Kim met Elvis “Blac Elvis” Williams—an American producer who launched No. 1 hits for Beyoncé (“Ego”) and Fergie (“Glamorous”). Williams was surprised when Kim proposed a partnership, but he was also intrigued with the upstart entrepreneur’s fearlessness, not to mention the crossover success of “Gangnam Style.” He and one of his past collaborators, Mack Woodward, signed on to be YMG’s executive producers.

The talent search began last February, when 150 people nationwide submitted online auditions. The label’s first signee was 16-year-old Trinity Nguyen, whose follower count on Instagram—where she posts frenetic dance clips to global pop songs from her family’s basement in Atlanta—is 127,000. At Madison Records Studios in Chamblee, she has started work on her first original song. “Under the Sky” begins with buoyant electric guitars and a question: “Sunshine, do you see us together / riding the wave?” Woodward offers Ariana Grande as a reference point.

YMG is also assembling a group act, Next Rising Generation. But don’t expect a Korean version of Migos. The label aims to speak more widely to Georgia’s diversifying population, marrying Latin sounds with urban and even country music elements. So far, they’ve recruited Giselle Lin, a 16-year-old former trainee at South Korea’s FNC Entertainment, and brothers Justin and Anthony Hong, 18 and 16, who live in New York. [Editor’s note: After this story went to press, YMG Entertainment posted on Instagram that Lin “has decided to focus on school and other endeavors and [is] no longer part of the program.”] Signing artists has proved more difficult than Kim anticipated: A process that she’d hoped would take weeks has stretched into months.

Still, YMG execs are encouraged by how Georgia, with one of the fastest growing Asian populations in the United States, is embracing K-pop, and vice versa. In 2018, Big Hit Entertainment chose Atlanta as one of six cities to host auditions for its next boy band. Last May, Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena hosted a sold-out Blackpink concert. That same month, the Duluth-based Korean broadcast network KTN hosted auditions for the 2019 Changwon K-pop World Festival, where Williams was a guest judge. Kim hopes all those factors will give YMG a competitive edge. “What separates us is that it’s not just going to be some K-pop music from anywhere,” she says. “It’s gonna be, ‘Oh, that’s an Atlanta K-pop kid.”

Our favorite Atlanta albums of the 2010s

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Killer Mike Run the Jewels Best Atlanta albums of decade
Killer Mike during Run the Jewels’ 2015 Coachella performance.

Photograph by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Last year, in our May 2018 issue, we took a stand and declared what Atlantans have known for years—our city is America’s music capital. If you want to see our full list of reasons why, you can check that out here. But as such, we knew we couldn’t let the decade end without looking back on the music that made it great. We asked three Atlanta music journalists—Bottom of the Map cohost Christina Lee, former Creative Loafing music editor Chad Radford, and Clark Atlanta University instructor Christopher Daniel—to pick their favorite album of the year and tell us why.

2010

Lee: (tie) Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
A boisterous counterpoint to anyone who would dare suggest one member of OutKast is more vital than the other.

and Waka Flocka Flame, Flockaveli
This album is the link between the kinetic crunk of Pastor Troy and Lil Jon and the punk irreverence of South Florida’s SoundCloud rap.

Deerhunter
Bradford Cox of Deerhunter performs during day three of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 2010

Photograph by Karl Walter/Getty Images

Radford: Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
The gorgeous atmosphere of “Desire Lines,” the frail imagery and distortion of “Coronado,” and the lurching melody of “Revival” proves that Deerhunter outgrew its indie art-punk status and evolved into a world-class songwriting entity.

Daniel: B.O.B., B.O.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray
The singer, rapper, songwriter, and musician fresh outta Decatur uses his chart-topping, major label debut to magnificently spit flows, rock out (“Magic”), and make crossover pop (“Nothing on You,” “Airplanes”).

2011

The-Dream
The-Dream performs in 2013

Photograph by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Lee: The-Dream, Terius Nash: 1977
Instead of writing another “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which he coproduced for Beyoncé in 2008, the Bankhead lothario proved his versatility with stormy R&B embittered by heartbreak.

Radford: Adron, Organismo
Adron’s fairytale voice, bird-like whistle, and nylon-stringed guitar melodies in songs such as “Pyramids,” “A Wizened Sage,” and “Jorgonian of the Midnight Sun” wafted over the mean streets of Atlanta like sweet manna from heaven.

Daniel: Killer Mike, PL3DGE
Killer Mike uses the final chapter of a trilogy to preach his street gospel and socially conscious perspectives over some hard beats and soul samples.

2012

Lee: Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
No longer just the fiery rookie from OutKast’s “The Whole World,” here Killer Mike finds renewed purpose in adulthood as the rap firebrand we know today.

Radford: 4th Ward AfroKlezmer Orchestra, Abdul the Rabbi
The blast of Afrocentric beats and Klezmer melodies brought to life in “Yeminite Tanz,” “Toco Hills Kiddush Club,” and the album’s title track challenge perceptions of what free jazz is—and what it can be.

Big Boi
Big Boi at a birthday celebration for T.I. in 2012

Photograph by Craig Bromley/Getty Images for GREY GOOSE

Daniel: Big Boi, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
This sophomore effort cranks out intergalactic funk and Southern-fried, trunk-rattling bangers. “In the A,” featuring T.I. and Ludacris, could be the city’s official song.

2013

Ciara
Ciara performs during the BET Awards in 2013

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET

Lee: Ciara, Ciara
“Body Party” alone—with its Ghosttown DJs sample—may be the sleekest distillation of Ciara’s local rap heritage and dancefloor charms yet.

Radford: Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels
The unlikely pairing of New York rapper El-P and Dungeon Family foot soldier Killer Mike kicked off an ongoing legacy of wry, aggressive, and straight-up cocky hip-hop that exists outside mainstream trends.

Daniel: 2 Chainz, B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME
One of rap’s wittiest, hardest-working talents kept the motivation from a number one debut album (2012’s Based on a T.R.U. Story), a Grammy nod, and a platinum plaque by delivering a sequel filled with anthemic heaters (“Feds Watching,” “Where U Been?” “Used 2,” “Extra”).

2014

Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels performs at Coachella in 2015

Photograph by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Lee: Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
The installation in this vigilante crossover where Killer Mike and El-P realize the full extent of their powers.

Radford: Faun and a Pan Flute, Faun and a Pan Flute
Faun and a Pan Flute’s self-titled LP captures pure innocence and stunning innovation, as nine players wield cellos, tubas, marimbas, and more, channeling outsider grit and beauty into jazz, math rock, and modern composition

Daniel: YG, My Krazy Life
The West Coast rapper behind “Who Do You Love” and “Left, Right” might’ve pledged allegiance to Compton, but his platinum-certified debut album got a heavy cosign from Atlanta rapper Jeezy, who signed YG to his CTE World imprint, and a dope album release party held at Patchwerk Studios in Home Park, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

2015

Future
Future performs in 2015

Photograph by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for AWXII

Lee: Future, DS2
With his first No. 1 album, his grip on the mainstream grew even tighter for how he presented fear and loathing in Actavis.

Radford: Red Sea, Yardsticks For Human Civilization
Red Sea brought a young and stylish new perspective to the tired tropes of shoegazing indie rock, steeped in rich guitar noise and melodic interplay that was complex beyond the group’s youthful innocence.

Daniel: Future, DS2
Call it self-indulgent if you want, but with this album, Future booked trap music on a first-class magic carpet ride through a psychedelic mystery tour, all while making superproducer Metro Boomin a highly sought-after console wizard.

2016

What happened to 21 Savage?
21 Savage at a New York event in November 2018

Photograph by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Lee: 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Savage Mode 
Stickup rap out of Atlanta never sounded this chillingly austere before 21 Savage refined his harrowing anti-hero persona.

Radford: Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel, 10
10 is the culmination of a decade spent sculpting a hauntingly beautiful and truly new form of sonic expression. This is by no means experimental music; these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

Daniel: Young Thug, Jeffery
What other zany rapper do you know who can break the internet with a mixtape by wearing a ruffled dress on the cover, name each track after a pop cultural figure, and release an infectious calypso-themed bonus track pleading to “Pick Up the Phone”?

2017

Vox Migos Flow
Migos performs at the 2017 BET Awards.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Lee: Migos, Culture
Once this family act fully figured out how trap tropes could be their playground, this album’s title rang true.

Radford: OMNI: Multi-Task
The album is filled with subtle, understated songs such as “Equestrian,” “Choke,” and “Calling Direct,” each one spiraling into classic post-punk and new wave atmosphere, and propelled by an avant-garde groove and swing.

Daniel: Cyhi the Prynce, No Dope on Sundays
Despite 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music turning its rose-colored cover art into both a tourist attraction and national landmark, the lyrically astute Stone Mountain native and underappreciated member of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint reminds listeners that concept albums can still matter in an era of playlists.

2018

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe performs in 2018

Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Lee: Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
Her most affecting album may soon become our generation’s Born in the U.S.A., by way of Prince’s sprawling influence.

Radford: Flamingo Shadow: Earth Music
Madeline Adams Matysiak’s sweet voice over irresistible Caribbean and post-punk rhythms in “All Way Down,” “Black Cloud,” and “Taxi,” are reminders to celebrate youth and freedom before the technology we all depend on enslaves us all.

Daniel: Lil Baby & Gunna, Drip Harder
It doesn’t get any better than best friends both becoming two of music’s most buzzworthy artists with one of the year’s biggest hit records (“Drip Too Hard”).

2019

Lee: Yung Baby Tate, GIRLS 
In a year where early 2000s nostalgia became unmistakably cool, this Decatur native sounded right on time as she picked up where TLC’s rap-R&B left off.

Radford: The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, Pyramids
Russell Gunn and a laundry list of Atlanta’s most accomplished players present a love letter to the pharaohs with a cosmic fortitude that defies jazz standards and reveals wholly new dimensions in music.

Lil Nas X performing with Billy Ray Cyrus and Cardi B.

Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Daniel: Lil Nas X, 7
This EP lasts just 18 minutes, but the history-making, breakthrough megastar behind the country trap-flavored “Old Town Road” refuses to let that hit define him, bringing along Cardi B., Travis Barker, Ryan Tedder, and Billy Ray Cyrus to round out an impressive set.

The Next Generation of Giving

Phi Nguyen

Photograph by Ben Rollins

PHI NGUYEN
35-year-old litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta

The first philanthropic project that I was involved in was through Athena’s Warehouse, the nonprofit that my sister Bee Nguyen (State House Representative, district 89, and the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Georgia’s General Assembly) started in 2009. Athena’s served high school girls at under-resourced public high schools: largely women of color, immigrants, or children of immigrants. We saw the ways in which our laws make it difficult to be undocumented. Even if one of the girls we worked with excelled academically, her options for higher education were significantly restricted and often economically infeasible.

Bee has always followed her passions and her heart in a way that wasn’t always to the liking of our parents, who wanted us to pursue more traditional career paths. We grew up in a household where politics weren’t spoken about; I was actually the one who registered my mom to vote for the first time in 2016. Seeing Bee created space for me to do the same—pursue projects and jobs that create social impact.

That led to spearheading Vietnamese Voices in 2016, in collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta (AAAJ-Atlanta). We registered around 600 Vietnamese-American voters four months ahead of the presidential election. Eventually, I joined AAAJ-Atlanta full-time in 2017 to do civil rights litigation, then coproduced a web series, Wake Up Atlanta, to engage Asian-American millennial voters. The more community work I was doing, particularly with immigrants, the more I understood how policies shaped the ways people were able to live their lives. Or not able to live their lives, as the case may be.

 

Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim

Photograph by Ben Rollins

QAADIRAH ABDUR-RAHIM
41-year-old CEO of Future Foundation, giving underserved youth the skills to thrive

My brother and I, born and raised in Atlanta, both went to the University of California, Berkeley on athletic scholarships. When we got there, we were completely unprepared to compete academically because we hadn’t gone to the best schools. We both made it, and my brother, Shareef, decided that, if given the opportunity, he would create a place that could help underserved children. He went to the NBA, played for the Atlanta Hawks, and when he came home, he reminded me of our dream to help kids. I’d just finished my first master’s, so I moved back to help build the nonprofit in 2003. We started with about 15 children. I took over as CEO in 2005 and from then to 2010, we grew to serve 5,000 kids and their families, and we kept growing. We’re focused on helping kids access five key activity categories: academics, healthy relationships, health information, life skills, and family engagement. Philanthropy wasn’t a category for me growing up, but someone who has changed my life through her mentorship is Ann Cramer, who served as IBM’s corporate citizenship director. The fact that someone so established has been an amazing champion has encouraged me along the way. Ann is courageous and has inspired me to continue this work, which can be tough.

 

Kate Atwood

Photograph by Ben Rollins

KATE ATWOOD
40-year-old founder of Kate’s Club, which empowers children after the death of a loved one

Next-gen philanthropy isn’t about amassing a lot of wealth and giving it away. It’s really about valuing your life and impacting others. When I started Kate’s Club in 2003, I had no money and I didn’t know anybody in Atlanta, so I just started cold-calling CEOs. Doug Hertz (United Distributors CEO) was the first to take my call and invite me to his office to give my pitch for the nonprofit. Doug and his wife, Lila, are some of the most well-known philanthropists in Atlanta. He listened to my pitch, pulled out his personal checkbook, and wrote me a check for $100. It was an emotional transaction because that $100 gave me confidence that I could succeed. Later, as executive director for the Arby’s Foundation, I had the resources to contribute to other organizations. We made the first corporate donation to the Center for Civic Innovation. Now they’re bringing up the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Whenever someone gives you the gift of believing in you, you’re going to look for how you can pay it forward. Doug’s check was an ignition point, breaking the seal for me to confidently approach other donors and believe I could accomplish the big dream of creating Kate’s Club.

 

Blake Canterbury

Photograph by Ben Rollins

BLAKE CANTERBURY
35-year-old founder of Purposity, the app that allows users to fund local needs in real time

In 2016, while working at a creative agency, I got an email from a homeless liaison at a local school who told me it could take weeks or months to get basic resources for kids in poverty. Some developer friends and I moonlighted to create a basic piece of technology to solve the problem. It worked and made us realize the solution to solving similar issues was in the billions of people on the planet with phones in their hands. We wanted to create the easiest way to help other people, believing individuals would want to meet needs in their communities, if only they knew and had a way to contribute. That’s what Purposity—the intersection of purpose and generosity—allows you to do: Users download our app, see a real-time list of nearby needs, and donate. We collect the money, purchase the items, communicate with the vetted partner agencies, and the items are delivered within two days. One hundred percent of the funds go to meeting needs, thanks to donations and corporate sponsors. We have a pretty incredible board, including former Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, who has been a mentor. The fact that someone like him believed in us, investing time and money, means everything. Purposity is growing fast, and we’ll surpass 100 cities by year’s end.

 

Rohit Malhotra

Photograph by Ben Rollins

ROHIT MALHOTRA
33-year-old founder & executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI), aimed at eliminating inequality

I grew up outside of Atlanta and worked in communications for then-President Obama, but wanted to make an impact locally. I started CCI in 2014, because Atlanta was, at the time, the most unequal city in the United States. We want to change the way people think about investing in social impact work in our city and create an economic case for it. I work with incredible people who are investing in interesting community-based solutions, focusing on improving public participation. So many have come alongside CCI and me. There’s Asif Ramji, formerly of Paymetric, who was the first person to write a check, and Tené Traylor, who has been an advocate for neighborhoods in Atlanta for years and is constantly thinking about how we can better invest our dollars and time into strengthening community voices. Cherie Ong let us use almost 15,000 square feet of space in the old Rich’s department store for our groups. Clark Dean, who runs Transwestern, has opened every door he could for us in the business community. And Sara Blakely of Spanx has been a champion for our fellowship program. We want to see the system shift, taking these ideas to the next level, so when you think about investing in Atlanta, you don’t just think about tech companies, you think about social companies because they’re just as valuable to our local economy. Ultimately, we’re in the business of putting problems out of business.

Killer Mike on Trigger Warning, teaching with porn, Crip-A-Cola, and why he’s not running for office

Killer Mike
Killer Mike

Photograph by Mike Pont

Rapper Killer Mike has been an incendiary progressive force in politics, whether he is rallying for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president or Keisha Lance Bottoms for Atlanta mayor. He’s also not one to hesitate speaking his mind. His new Netflix documentary series, Trigger Warning, goes to incredible lengths imagining what could be done if he truly had his way. Through the show, the lifelong Atlantan—born Michael Render—presents solutions that politicians wouldn’t exactly call “common sense” to issues of a weakened black economy, a diminished education system, and a divided nation: He pitches classroom instructional videos set to pornography to Omnitech technical school. He and T-Pain hold auditions at Big Boi’s Stankonia Studios for a supergroup that ultimately features a self-identifying white nationalist. And when that supergroup couldn’t quite connect even with fans at a Run the Jewels show, Killer Mike’s hip-hop duo with El-P, Killer Mike forms a sovereign nation called “New Africa.”

As Donald Glover does with his FX show Atlanta, Killer Mike uses his pointed wit and wild imagination to shed new light on bizarre, hard truths about being an American. Below, we talked to him about the series.

Some of your fellow executive producers, like Daniel Weidenfeld, previously worked on Adult Swim programsand you can tell from the tone of Trigger Warning. Why did it make sense to partner with them?
Well, the tone of the show is literally my personality, and Daniel and I have been friends for 12, 13 years. We’ve been sending ideas back and forth based on experiences and conversations over the last ten years. We tried an early version at FX that we didn’t like that much, and we left it alone until we got the Netflix deal. I think the world caught up with what we envisioned.

Killer Mike Trigger Warning
Killer Mike in his new Netflix series, Trigger Warning

Photograph courtesy of Netflix

What were you and Daniel talking about ten years ago?
Like the Crip-A-Cola. I’ve always asked myself, what is it about other ethnic groups that they’re able to readily and publicly claim their notorious beginnings to bring them legitimacy? My Italian friends will proudly say that their grandfathers ran with the Mafia. And in America, we love the bad guy. Even the good guys, we want them to kick ass like a bad guy. So what is it about the psychology of my community that didn’t allow us to embrace our bad guys in that way? I wanted to know why the Hell’s Angels were smart and used serendipity in a way that they were able to build legitimacy as a motorcycle club and say, “Let’s all go sell t-shirts.” I think that is practical and genius and worthy of doing.

Street gangs have built a brand to where Levis was comfortable with putting a red bandana in the right side pocket when Lil Wayne was getting hot. We know what that means. The world knows what that means. But this is a faceless corporation, and they’re using it to build their product. I thought, why don’t I go to people who are actual members of street fraternities and actually have propelled this brand, to build legitimacy off what they are doing? People who are making money, who are able to support their children, are able to contribute to the ecosystem and the greater economy. They become individually stronger, which makes their community stronger, which makes the greater good stronger.

Killer Mike Trigger Warning
Crip-a-Cola

Photograph courtesy of Netflix

How did Netflix get involved, and how involved were Netflix?
I really enjoy the fact that we came to Netflix with a good idea, and they had the faith in us to say, “We’re going to strip this idea all the way down.” It’s going to be Michael Moore-ish, in the way that I am the main character actually engaging the public. And I thought that added a swagger or an “in-your-faceness,” like early In Living Color or Chappelle’s Show. It brought a perspective that people hadn’t thought of, and Netflix allowed us to go in the world and do it.

In the first episode, you try to only buy from black businesses for three days. Somehow I was shocked to see you struggle in Atlanta, of all places.
When my grandmother popped up in Atlanta in 1942, up until I would say even the 1980s, it was radically different. You had the ability to go to a black barber and buy food and produce directly from a black vegetable farmer. There was an availability because blacks were integrated into the business class. Edgewood Avenue, where my barbershop is now, was filled with black business and commerce.

When black people say, “you’re giving money to white folks,” what they are really saying is corporate versus local. Now you’re taking money that you would use to buy local groceries and take it to Whole Foods, and the west side becomes a food desert. When I tell people to buy black, I’m really telling people to buy from small businesses, from people who are around you, located near you. Find and support those places so that we have stronger regional businesses versus having to deal with national chains that may not accept you.

I don’t want white people to avoid black businesses. I want the greater community to support black businesses. But the black district has to be fit in order for people to support it; you don’t get an Atlanta Life Insurance Company if a black barbershop had not already been there, because the founder [Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first black millionaire] wouldn’t have been able to have the business conversation that sparked his imagination to start selling life insurance and death insurance. That only happens when our economy integrates into the larger economy.

Which of Trigger Warning‘s social experiments ended up being the most interesting, and why?
Teaching through pornography. I became a strong reader because my mom caught me reading Playboy, but she also caught me reading. I was interested in the articles: I wanted to know about Michael Jordan and what the Beastie Boys were doing. Of course I liked the pornography, oh my god. But my mother, who was only 16 years older than me, took that as an opportunity to encourage me to read, to talk to me about sexuality and what that meant. [Using pornography to teach] is a funny, twisted, cynical, dark, sarcastic, witty way of doing it, but I think it could really motivate people.

How did y’all land on the title Trigger Warning?
I didn’t even know what Trigger Warning meant. Daniel, my producer, came to me with that idea; that was our tentative title at first. Once I realized that it would piss middle-class white people off, I was like yeah, this is what we’re doing. [laughs]

The fifth episode features a supergroup that speaks to all creeds and colors. Talk about the decision to give a white nationalist not only camera time, but the final verse in this “We Are the World” moment.
We gave everybody camera time. White nationalism triggers you, so you’re bringing that up. There are a lot of subtle triggers that are in there for everyone.

I grew up in the South. I have dealt with Confederate pride and white nationalism my whole life, and not from the perspective of being a victim of it. At the end of the day, I have to engage even people who I disagree with as human beings, to seek understanding, because we’re here. This man lives in DeKalb County. It’s not like we’re not going to see each other at the Kroger. We have different opinions on social things, but that does not mean that I don’t recognize and respect him. We wanted to feature everyone’s voice, and you saw what happened.

How did you want people to feel after watching Trigger Warning?
I don’t want folks to walk away with a specific feeling, as much as I want them to process that feeling. Usually you feel something, you go to Twitter and Facebook to tell people how you feel. You might then put that thought behind you. What I want you to do is process your fear and think. After that you converse with people who are in your inner circle, people who don’t look like you, and people who do. I want to start conversations. I want to get people interacting and intermingling differently.

I didn’t plan on Mario [an aspiring singer and actor who Killer Mike accuses of being “an absolute fucking racist” when they first meet] being the heel. Mario was just a genuine asshole when I met him, but the more I knew him, the more enamored I became with his personality. By the end of it, before people came to vote for me over a more qualified woman to lead the nation [of New Africa], Mario was the only person willing to speak out on leadership and truly be a patriot in that moment. You see what I’m saying? I engaged it all the way through, and I left with a great love and affection for him.

Killer Mike Trigger WarningThe show’s ending—i.e. the election of New Africa—was surprising to me. But I also wondered if it was a response to folks asking when you’re going to run for office. Why be the booster, as opposed to stepping into those leadership roles?
Henry Kissinger was in the White House a lot longer than many presidents. I would rather help those that are truly qualified and willing to make a sacrifice at this time than do that myself. I’m a capitalist. I like money. I have a beautiful wife and children, and my first priority is guaranteeing their financial future. That doesn’t mean that I think rich people shouldn’t be politicians, but anyone with ambitions of being rich, I don’t think, is fit for politics right now. I will continue to kick ass for [Senator Bernie] Sanders, for [Georgia State Senator Vincent] Fort, for [Mayor] Keisha [Lance Bottoms] and anyone locally who is doing right by people. I just won’t trade in my singing and dancing salary for a public servant salary.

Now that Trigger Warning is out, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling a lot of pressure. We’re a little behind schedule: Crip-A-Cola and Blood Pop are coming to market, and we’re finalizing and getting everything straight. I’m very happy the show is being received well. But this is not a pretend show. So there are aspects of business that need to be done to set this on the right path. We’re just making sure that it will be shared locally and that it will be online.

Finally, how does it feel to be performing the week of the Super Bowl, opening for Foo Fighters on February 2?
I was about to say, growing up, Dave Grohl was the drummer of my life. I’m going crazy. I’m excited, I’m happy. I grew up four miles from the stadium. I’m a kid who was telling the teacher at 9 years old that I’m going to be a rapper. Now I can live out that childhood dream with one of my best friends. I’m ecstatic.

Soul Food Cypher taps hip-hop’s competitive spirit to foster fellowship

Soul Food Cypher One HundredThe most important rule of One Hundred, a monthly freestyle rap event organized by local nonprofit Soul Food Cypher, is to show courtesy. Cursing is strongly discouraged—unless it is to prove a larger point—because children are present. If spectators talk over the emcees, Soul Food Cypher’s “enforcers,” or moderators, remind them, “Respect!” Cheering, on the other hand, is strongly encouraged.

October’s event in Little Five Points Community Center began with a cypher, a circle of more than a dozen emcees who took turns rapping, open-mic style, as a DJ spun and built beats. Then, they shifted to an elections-themed word association exercise (“I don’t need you for an approval rating, I keep it moving”), going around the circle until each performer had an opportunity to freestyle.

Soul Food Cypher One Hundred
Larry “LX” Wright, member

Photograph by Ben Rollins

One Hundred is one of 26 events the seven-year-old organization hosts each year that aim to turn hip-hop artists into community leaders by building camaraderie, encouraging collaboration, and providing a platform. They build on the legacy of old school hip-hop and rap records that spoke truth to power, like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, to promote social consciousness and creative expression.

The most famous freestyle rap battle competitions, like Toronto’s pay-per-view King of the Dot, can turn ugly because being politically incorrect is often a winning battle strategy. Soul Food Cypher refuses to be judgmental. “Everyone is allowed to get into the cypher regardless of their skill level or background,” says Eric Ludgood, Soul Food Cypher’s curator who also raps under the moniker Zano Bathroom. “Hip-hop heads infamously have a history of homophobia and misogyny. If an emcee steps outside the parameters, we will politely correct them. ‘This is what we do. Here is how it is different from what you did. How can we go forward and build up the energy?’”

Soul Food Cypher One Hundred
Alexander Acosta, executive director

Photograph by Ben Rollins

In 2011, cofounder and photojournalist Alexander Acosta was volunteering as a photography teacher at Whitefoord, Inc.’s Intel Computer Clubhouse, a media center in southeast Atlanta open to “at-risk” teens, when he first witnessed how music could be a catalyst for change. He noticed how interested his students were in learning how to film music videos and discovered he bonded with them more quickly when he taught them how to write verses.

The following year, after Acosta, Mark Montgomery, Majorca Murphy, and Walid Khoshravani started organizing a biweekly hip-hop event at WonderRoot, Soul Food Cypher launched a membership program, cultivating a network of freestyle lyricists who perform at venues like the High Museum of Art and the Decatur Book Festival, help run monthly cyphers, and lead afterschool programs at the Kindezi School. In exchange, Soul Food Cypher teaches members the basics of how to be a working hip-hop artist, from gripping a mic properly to filing invoices. Kids whom Acosta first met at Whitefoord have since joined the organization, bringing the total number of members to 23.

Soul Food Cypher One Hundred
Mark “Markmont” Montgomery, creative director

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Soul Food Cypher One Hundred
Tiye Cochran, member

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“Us working with kids is a critical part of the ecosystem,” Acosta says. “The same kids we’re working with will start coming to our events. They will be nurtured at our events. They’ll have a safe place to go instead of the streets. The cycle begins all over again.”

A year ago, Soul Food Cypher became a 501(c)(3). The leaders hope they can extend the group’s reach even further, akin to how some local hip-hop stars like Killer Mike and T.I. have evolved as activists. “I want us to be more ingrained in universities and academic spaces and include emcees in conversations about civics and public policy,” Acosta says. “emcees’ voices are important.”

This article appears in our January 2019 issue.

What we learned from Gucci Mane’s new autobiography

Gucci Mane

Last May, after serving a three-year stint for weapons and assault charges, platinum-hit rapper Gucci Mane left a federal prison 75 pounds lighter and with a newfound focus. In The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, published this month, the 37-year-old Atlanta trap rap crossover act—Mariah Carey has his number—revisits his rise to rap stardom; his struggle with a codeine cocktail called “lean;” and becoming a mentor to Future and Migos. “To start a new chapter you’ve got to turn the page on the last one,” he writes.

Early on Gucci lived in a motel.
After relocating to Georgia at the age of nine, Gucci and his family lived at an inn near East Atlanta. They later moved to an apartment, and Gucci says he started selling drugs to make money.

He started drinking lean before it landed on the local radar.
Gucci—born Radric Davis—started mixing codeine with soda in the late 2000s. By 2013 he had a nearly $1,000-a-day habit that slowed down his metabolism. Three weeks after giving it up, Gucci lost 25 pounds.

His father was nicknamed Gucci Mane.
Gucci’s grandfather fell in love with the luxury label during his military service in Italy. Gucci’s dad, Ralph Dudley, inherited his father’s fashion sense and love for slang. “Gucci Man” became “Gucci Mane” because of the family’s Alabama twang.

A music executive invented “Trap God.”
One of Gucci’s nicknames (and the title of his 2012 mixtape) was coined by Todd Moscowitz, a veteran music executive who had worked with Gucci throughout his major label career. He even suggested the artist legally change his name to Trap God. Gucci didn’t, though he still answers to it.

His fiancée was first his leading lady.
After discovering Keyshia Ka’oir modeling for XXL magazine, Gucci cast her in his “911 Emergency” video. He proposed to Ka’oir at an Atlanta Hawks game six years later.

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.

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