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Kenan Thompson on his new sitcom, SNL, and how Atlanta “made me the man I am”

Kenan Thompson
Kenan Thompson in 2019

Photograph by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Most teenagers spend time going from class to class in school, daydreaming about what they want to be when they grow up. In the mid-’90s, a teenage Kenan Thompson was already wise beyond his years: realizing that bouncing between two production sets day-by-day for his block schedule would educate him on what it takes to become successful in television comedy.

Two decades have passed, and Thompson, 42, is on top of his game. The Emmy-winning funnyman now in his 18th season on Saturday Night Live—longest-tenured cast member in the show’s historyalso stars and executive produces his new self-titled sitcom, Kenan, also on NBC.

Thompson plays a widowed Atlanta morning talk show host that’s raising his two daughters with the assistance of his bro-manager [SNL castmate Chris Redd] and father-in-law [Don Johnson]. Kenan was originally given its series order in 2019 before going through a series of creative changes, followed by Covid-19 postponing production. After briefly taping SNL via Zoom last year because of the shutdown, Thompson now splits his time between New York City and Los Angeles to tape both shows.

Kenan Thompson
A still from the pilot of Kenan: Dani Lane as Aubrey, Kenan Thompson as Kenan, Dannah Lane as Birdie

Photograph by Casey Durkin/NBC

But the comedic actor is no stranger to multitasking and keeping his feet moving. The College Park native spent six seasons on Nickelodeon’s teen sketch variety show All That before pivoting for four more seasons into his own sitcom, Kenan & Kel, co-starring his All That castmate Kel Mitchell. Thompson also appeared in several feature films, including D2: The Mighty Ducks, Heavyweights, Fat Albert, Good Burger, and Love Don’t Cost a Thing.

An upbeat Thompson took some time from production to chat with Atlanta about his hometown, juggling two shows for NBC, the pandemic, writing some of SNL’s most memorable sketches, and collaborating with some of comedy’s most talented performers.

What was it like attending Tri-Cities High School?
I was only there for two years, my junior and senior year. I was still in and out doing my work at Nickelodeon, so I was there sporadically. I was in the theater department, and the whole department was run by my theater mentor, Freddie Hendricks. I was already in his Youth Ensemble of Atlanta outside of school. My first day of school, I was just a weird kid with his first time in public school, so I didn’t know how to dress. I was mad awkward, and my drama class was at the end of the day. I was super lost; I didn’t make no friends until my very last class, and I started seeing people that I recognized. From that point, I felt right at home. I was more happy than I could be. The rest of my high school experience was great from that moment on, but up until 7th period, it was terrible [laughs].

Where are your favorite spots to eat or hang out whenever you’re back in Atlanta?
There’s usually lemon pepper wings somewhere. I’ll find some good lemon pepper wings at different little shacks that might be still open. It might be called something like East Point Wings; I like random spots that have the most incredible wings you’ve had in your life, and definitely some soul food. I love the A, man. It definitely made me the man I am and carved the taste buds that I have. My people are still there, and I get back there whenever I can. We actually have a place in Tampa, so a lot of people come down there to visit.

How are you balancing the workload between Saturday Night Live and your new sitcom, Kenan?
It’s just two different beasts. I’ve done them both before; I gotta give Nickelodeon their credit because it trained me for exactly what’s happening in my life right now. I went from a sketch show to a sitcom. Saturday Night Live is a mental grind throughout the week to try to get things done, rewritten, and make sure it goes right because of all the anticipation leading up to 11:30 p.m. If you come up with an idea on Tuesday, then you have until Saturday night to try and get it right. For sitcoms, you have to be focused as soon as you come in the door, be ready to learn the whole scene, or have it already prepared from the night before depending on how you work. It’s performance time all day, every day, Monday through Friday. It’s not like you can half step. We shoot it until we get it right, and then we move on. It’s a constant go-go-go once you’re up and shooting because you’re under the time crunch. It’s not like I’m out here doing it by myself either. That would be way too stressful, so I lean into my writers, creators, producers, family, and friends. It takes a village to make the kid.

Kenan Thompson
Thompson on his new sitcom

Photograph by Casey Durkin/NBC

Could you explain how Covid has affected life on set?
It’s a lot of protocol, but they’re in place because they work. We’ve been able to get through our season, and SNL has been able to keep going steady. It’s a little more isolated, but it’s also helped me focus on what the overall point is, which is the performance. I don’t have a lot of distractions or people trying to come hang around or try to entertain people while I’m trying to do my work. Don [Johnson] was talking about this the other day, saying this is a once in a lifetime opportunity where we’re able to be able to create a whole show for a whole season without the super industry pressure of agents, lawyers, managers all being on the set together with egos getting involved. That’s a distraction from what we’re supposed to be doing, which is to harmonize and build a funny situation. It can get very touchy because the show has a lot of heart in it. It’s emotional, so you want a positive back-and-forth with creative engagement.

What does it take to evolve from a child star into a massively successful film and television star?
It’s the job. I stayed close to family and my theater friends. We all support each other. It’s a very positive place for me to retreat to. I just go back home to Atlanta and get back around like-minded people. We’re all doing the same type of actor-hustler at different levels, so I can engage with them to stay on top of the craft, what we’re learning about approaching different scenes, and just focus on the work as opposed to what fame can do for you.

How involved are you at SNL in the writing of Georgia-specific sketches like the Migos parody or “Blue Georgia“?
Those references are just overall consensual things that people think Atlanta people would say. I think everybody knows that I’m from Atlanta; I represent it really hard, so if they have a question about a good reference, then I would suggest they familiarize themselves with something like Outkast or Hank Aaron and what they mean to the city. If people have a specific question about Atlanta, then I’ll answer it.

How did it feel winning an Emmy for the “Come Back, Barack” sketch with Chris Redd and Chance the Rapper?
“Come Back, Barack” was incredible, man. I’m so proud of Chris; he could not be a cooler dude but also an incredibly talented individual. It’s nice to watch somebody not necessarily discovering their shine but definitely getting comfortable and shining on the world like that. When he blesses us with these comedic songs, he’s got a real gift for that. We teamed up with Chance twice, got nominated both times, and won the second time. Both of those brothers are incredibly gifted and gracious, and I’m so happy we were all able to get down with each other and come up with beautifully creative content that splashes across the world. Hopefully, it reached President Obama. In my mind and my dreams, Barack is boppin’ around, showing it to Michelle. To do those things with good people and then get rewarded at the highest scale in your career is just incredible. Carol Burnett presented us with that award; it was just a mind-blowing night. I’ll never forget it.

What do you remember about the Black Jeopardy sketch with Chadwick Boseman?
It was another unforgettable week we got to spend with him. I remember him being a hyper-focused individual; he wanted to figure it out. We were trying to figure out how to step up his episode past Tom Hanks, because he’d just done it, and that was the pinnacle for that sketch up until that point. We were struggling to figure out how to get him bigger and bigger laughs. We finally tightened it at the very end; he found it as well. It was a beautiful realization to hear what we were finding with the characters being matched by the audience watching it. It was just brilliant: another experience of building on something all week that’s done best when it’s live. Chadwick couldn’t have been more nice, gracious, loving, and creative.

What about your recent Golden Globes bit with Maya Rudolph?
That was my first time going to the Golden Globes. It’s a bittersweet blessing to me because it was an isolated experience because of Covid, so I didn’t really see anybody that would’ve made me nervous. It wasn’t a room full of celebrities: just normal people. They were very grateful to see us up there with bits, and the energy was just really positive. I was grateful and happy to be there. It was an opportunity of a lifetime; everybody was gonna watch. I was able to be with my sisters Maya, Amy, and Tina on satellite. I had an hour to chill, present my award, I was out of there, and back home by 7:15. That’s what I call a good Sunday.

Is there a larger statement that you’re trying to make with Kenan?
I don’t know if there’s a specific statement we’re trying to make. The overall concept about the show has heart in it because of the situation my character, daughters, and everybody around me is going through it. It’s heavy on all of the characters, and I wanted it to be like that just because I’ve never seen a sitcom explore that. Mr. Mayor kinda has the same theme, but that wasn’t out at the time [laughs].  The idea for me to be a widower actually came from when I met Jackie [Clarke], the co-creator and showrunner, because she had the same idea, but it was much closer to home for her. She actually experienced something like that. That was interesting, and I knew I had to make the show with her; nobody else did. Everyone had generic ideas. I’d already done that in the creative cycle twice with NBC, so I wanted to do something for my own instinct of what I think would be a good show. It matched up with her’s, so we just started running right then. We created a pilot, were able to redevelop it, and bring in other people into the cast to blanket the project with a bunch of great creatives and solid minds that are executing what you see. I’m just beyond happy and pleased, regardless of however long it took to get to this point.

An excerpt from C.T. Vivian’s posthumous memoir, It’s in the Action

C.T. Vivian memoir
C.T. Vivian in 2011

Photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Civil and human rights leader Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian used a mantra anytime he became involved with nonviolent efforts towards change: Always connect the issue to what people value.

For his posthumous memoir, It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior, Vivian, who Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the greatest preacher to ever live,” revisits his seven decades of activism and the life lessons resulting from those strategies toward advancing equality for all people.

The coming-of-age story’s 224 pages, co-written with Steve Fiffer, actively flash back to Vivian’s experiences as a member of King’s executive team, a Freedom Rider, and director of national affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“Those involved in the movement knew that the only way to win was to help white America hold white America accountable for what it said to believe in,” Vivian’s son, Al Vivian, says. “Every idea they used was connected to the Constitution and the Bible. That way, white America could not run from the issue because this is what they bought into.”

C.T. Vivian it's in the actionIt’s in the Action, which opens with a foreword by Ambassador Andrew Young, primarily takes place during the 1950s and ‘60s. Vivian, who authored 1970’s Black Power and the American Myth, retells the physical attack Sheriff Jim Clark inflicted onto him during a highly publicized voting rights march at a Selma, Alabama, courthouse in 1965, recreates his first sit-in in Peoria, Illinois in 1947, and how his collaboration with John Lewis and Diane Nash helped Nashville become the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters in 1960. The book doesn’t get to take a deep dive into Vivian’s post-Civil Rights Movement work as a diversity consultant, community organizer, and advisor to five U.S. Presidents due to the fact that his health began to deteriorate as the book was being completed.

It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior illustrates Vivian’s dedication to humanity, which could function as a blueprint for how leaders must act in order to create change and afford better opportunities for all people.

“I hope the book gets the recognition it deserves,” says Al Vivian, who is the current president and CEO of Basic Diversity, the workplace consultancy his father founded in 1974.

“Dad was really good at motivating people and getting them to see the connection between the movement and the Bible. He and King’s entire team didn’t see the movement as political; they saw it as a moral, spiritual battle. They succeeded because they knew God was on their side, and that’s why they did not mind putting themselves in harm’s way.”

Excerpt from It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior by C.T. Vivian with Steve Fiffer (NewSouth Books, March 2021)

The basis of all human rights today is the result of a movement that moved all of us. In fact, the lives and lifestyle of almost everyone in America today, regardless of color, was formed or decided by their action, or reaction, to the civil rights movement as led and declared by Martin Luther King Jr. For most of those in the South, past or present, Black or White, our incomes and education and religion have been affected and improved by the movement. Martin’s movement was the beginning of the transformation of America—a true transformation of America and the American Dream.

Those of my generation and those who grew up in the 1960s can’t help but know something of this great man and his deeds. Those who weren’t alive when Martin was assassinated in 1968 study him in school and know he did something important enough to get a holiday named after him—though not without a too-long delay. But all too often I come across young men and women with little or no knowledge of Martin. It saddens me but no longer surprises me. Subjects we should be studying closely are often observed only through the rearview mirror. And sometimes—driven by the need to come up with something new or shocking—these observations sully or distort the view, reducing our ability to see the big picture.

As someone fortunate enough to have known Martin from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968, to work side by side with him, to laugh and to weep with him, I’m often asked to provide a perspective on the man and the movement he created and led.

My thesis is simple:

Martin became America’s greatest social strategist by taking the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, and then turning them on America like a mirror. He used these two great documents that undergird the laws, thought, and principles of this nation and made America take them seriously. Speech after speech, one direct action nonviolent confrontation after the other, changing one law after the other, in one state and then another, he made Americans face who they really were.

Nonviolent direct action helped us to free ourselves and others at the same time. Even those who did not think of themselves as involved were freed from evils of the spirit they could not see or acknowledge. This people’s movement forced the most powerful nation in the world to say “yes” when it wanted to say “no,” and it empowered passive bystanders to energetically join the freedom chorus. Together they forced America to admit that it was a sick society.

The movement put America’s mind in conflict with its mythical self and helped it regain a path to sanity. Martin made the people of this nation ask a basic question, “Who am I?” Moreover, to ask the basic philosophical question, “What does it mean to be human in my own time?” And, “What is my nation’s belief system, and does it reflect the person I choose to be and what I want my family and neighbors to become?”

Kamala Harris makes her pitch to Atlanta University Center students

Kamala Harris campaigns at Morehouse College
Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks to the crowd at Morehouse College during a campaign rally on October 23.

Photograph by Derrian Carter

The Atlanta University Center is not okay. Zoom fatigue from remote learning has students from Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University collectively eager to return to campus. All homecoming activities were cancelled, and students are fraught by the thought of the coronavirus pandemic not ending anytime soon.

“I don’t want to go into the job search in the middle of this when it’s already very hard to find work,” says Spelman College senior Jazmine Thomas. “It’s important to me that legislation changes and that we have a great leader that is able to make it his or her priority to allow HBCU graduates—and graduates around the world—to be able to have good livelihoods.”

On Friday, eleven days before Election Day, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris dropped by Atlanta for a pop-up rally in the parking lot of Morehouse College’s Ray Charles Performing Arts Center to try to encourage concerned AUC students to vote for her ticket. The two-term former district attorney for San Francisco and first African American woman to become Attorney General for California stood before a euphoric, socially distanced crowd honking horns and carrying banners reminding them of the history Atlanta has cultivated toward mobilizing social movements.

“Atlanta represents the hopes, dreams, and fight to make real the promise of America,” Harris said to the crowd, invoking the late Congressman John Lewis. “It’s a place that has produced national and international leaders who have always understood that hope will fuel the fight, and faith will be what grounds us in knowing what is possible.”

In her pitch to the students, the Oakland-born, Howard University alumna mentioned flattening Covid-19 rates, supporting environmental justice, attacking racial injustice, and investing in working families as concurrent issues that primarily affect Gen Z. Currently the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate, Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker are proposing the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which bans chokeholds, carotid holds, and creates a National Registry for law enforcement officers that violate laws.

“You gotta just organize the folks, bring people together, and recognize that nothing we have ever achieved as a nation by way of progress came without a fight,” Harris said, dressed in a black pants suit and wearing a matching black mask before she took the stage.

Police brutality hits close to home in the AUC. Morehouse student Messiah Young and Spelman student Taniyah Pilgrim were harassed and tased by on-duty officers during a protest in May. (Two APD officers were fired after the incident.) Some students say they appreciate the bill being drafted and led by Harris.

“We’ve had so much racial injustice and systemic racism in the country this summer, all year and throughout history,” says Morehouse senior Sizwe Chapman. “Having someone in office that comes in with that discomfort with America is comforting. It’s good to see her stand behind her platforms and hear what she has to say.”

Rick Hart, the co-chair of Georgia Young Leaders for Joe Biden and HBCU outreach director for College Democrats of America, says he is excited about Harris potentially becoming vice president. A first-time voter, the Morehouse junior says he appreciates that Harris and her running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden, take science seriously when looking for solutions to overcoming Covid-19, which is responsible so far for the deaths of over 220,000 Americans—more than 7,000 in Georgia.

“We have a choice to make, or we can choose to continue to walk through these next years backwards and blindfolded,” says Hart. “We must charter a future that is inclusive and [has] justice for all.”

Clark Atlanta University senior Miranda Perez says she was impressed by Harris’s ability to firmly articulate her position of the issues counter to the current White House administration, but didn’t think Harris’s public address specifically targeted HBCU students.

“Her speech missed the real opportunity to grasp the HBCU student vote,” Perez said. “I expected a true HBCU viewpoint, but she made great points on being the opposite of Trump, which we all need. That alone will work us into a more equitable playing field.”

By the time Harris made her 25-minute presentation, Georgia had already tallied 2.3 million early voters, a sharp increase from the early turnout in the 2016 election. Noting that she chose to run with Biden because he’s “always uplifting emerging leaders,” Harris said she was confident that young citizens would use their voice and vote to honor history and work towards the change they want.

“It’s about everybody taking on their role of leadership knowing that we have so much at stake,” Harris said. “Voting is about honoring those ancestors, what they fought for, and what they sacrificed. When we vote, things change. Let’s not let anybody take our power from us and out of this game. We know the power of our voice.”

For Thomas, the Spelman senior majoring in international business, the speech was worth viewing in person. “Something is different when you can see somebody and really feel their energy,” she says. “I feel the emotion of empowerment after hearing her speak. I can see a lot of myself in her. It’s very inspiring seeing someone from an HBCU potentially being in such a high position. It lets me know that whatever I’d like to do is possible.”

Disclosure: Writer Christopher A. Daniel is a mass media arts instructor, digital/multimedia journalism, at Clark Atlanta University.

What Lil Jon has been up to in 2020

Lil Jon
Lil’ Jon

Photograph by Tyler Clinton

Grammy-winning hype man and hitmaker Lil Jon normally books around 200 gigs per year, with March being his busiest month. But when the coronavirus pandemic locked down the country this spring, artists canceled tours and venues closed, which left many performers, their staff, and production crews out of work indefinitely.

Lil Jon still wanted to keep the party going, so he came up with an idea. Every Saturday night at 10 p.m., the “King of Crunk” meshes together his Club 559 past with his Vegas residencies: delivering a high-octane, three-hour set simulcast across multiple social platforms.

Sequencing new and classic Southern bangers, Bay Area slappers, and occasionally reggaeton and dancehall in front of his well-stocked home bar, the 49-year-old proactively sips tequila from his jewel-encrusted chalice (or sometimes a red Solo cup); vamps using his signature catchphrases; and converges his rotating set list with music video clips, his own pixelated avatars, zany montages of shots being poured and consumed, vintage Atlanta B-roll, and even classic infomercials. The interactive comment section is often buzzing even before the sets start.

We chatted with the underground king-turned-global phenomenon behind “Bia Bia,” “Get Low,” “Snap Yo Fingers,” and “Turn Down For What,” on what it takes to put those Saturday shows together, what he’s been up to during the pandemic, and the exciting new music he’s producing with his son, a recent NYU grad. Much milder in conversation than his extroverted stage persona, we also revisit his humble beginnings playing the chitlin circuit and the work he put in to help put Atlanta on a worldwide stage.

What goes into you putting together those live DJ sets every Saturday night?
It’s a lot of preparation. We started out with GIFs and other people’s videos. Now, we’re introducing a lot of green screen content. I take a day or two to figure out what I’m going to play that week, two or three days to get the videos right, and make sure all of the mixes remind people that I really DJ. I try to just go above and beyond. My video guy and I think about stuff every week, and it’s great because it’s fun. That’s why we made the visuals even crazier. Some of the visuals are what you might see in the club or on a giant wall in Vegas. No matter where you are or who you’re quarantined [with], you can just turn the TV on and have a party at your house. I feel like I’m in the club. When we go live and have the loading screen up, people are already in the chat commenting well before the show starts. It makes me feel good that all of the hard work is appreciated.

How did it all start?
I came home March 11 after doing one week of spring break gigs; my last show was in the Bahamas. I was supposed to go to Mexico [to do a ton of dates], but I remember hearing about the coronavirus two weeks before we shut down. So I immediately told my team to boost their immune systems up. I just sat back and watched DJ D-Nice and all of the DJs doing [virtual] live sets for about a month, then I got an idea to do my thing. When I would be in other people’s threads, they would ask when would I go live. It wasn’t time for me yet. Everybody was playing oldies, slow jams, or New York hip-hop. Southern hip-hop is running music, but nobody was consistently playing that from a Southern perspective, so that’s what I wanted to do.

What made you decide to apply for a Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan to produce those sets?
I was able to keep everybody employed: mainly my publicist and assistants. I had to pick up a new employee to do all of this stuff and pay for that every week. I had to purchase new equipment: computers, cameras, and there’s so much that goes into doing the streaming. I never thought I would ever be streaming because I was on tour, so I was never home long enough to worry about that. But we have nothing but time on our hands, so I just dived right in to learn the technology. It’s great to not be on tour, but be on tour because I’m still in front of thousands of people every week.

Given the sociopolitical climate we’re in, how do you mentally prepare to perform week-after-week?
When the George Floyd [was killed], I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play music that week. I changed my mind because [there] might’ve been someone that needed that outlet. We all needed that positivity and a way to let those emotions and energy out. I usually express my feelings to everybody that tunes in, and so many people message me, thanking me in the comments for helping them get through it. The love gives me the strength to know that no matter what, I still gotta do the show. Vegas is my number one place to be on the road, but everything is totally shut down.

One good thing I can say is I wanted to eventually not be on the road as much to focus more on production. It’s giving me that opportunity to not completely shut down. The pandemic has pushed a lot of us into doing stuff that we needed to do or wanted to do that we might not have done. I’ve been cooking nice and healthy meals for the family; me and my son work out together a couple of days a week; I’ve upped my water intake; and took a much-needed detox. No matter what negatives happen to you in life, there’s always something positive that you can pull from that to keep moving forward.

What do you cook?
I cook everything. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of vegan dishes: replacing olive oil with coconut oil, using more almond flour, and vegan cheeses. I cut dairy a while ago. I cook Moroccan to Mexican to Jamaican. I got my tagine pots, so I make lamb stews sometimes and all kinds of stuff.

You did a Verzuz (the hit virtual music battle series produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz) against T-Pain this past spring. How important is that platform to the culture?
Me and T-Pain know each other very well, worked with each other numerous times, and check each other’s shows out in other cities. We’re Southern guys, so we have a sense of humor. That was just us being us, and everyone in the audience was hanging out with us. That response was crazy; I’m still getting tagged by people saying ours was their favorite one. My homeboy, DJ Mars, says, “Black music saved the internet.” Through the pandemic, Verzuz provided a place for Black music to shine and give us some entertainment to get our minds off all of the madness in the world. You could see Michelle Obama, Jamie Foxx, and whoever in the comments, so it makes people feel like they’re in VIP with everybody else. It’s so personable. The artists play, talk to each other, and hear each other’s stories. It’s not their teams: just them. The way it’s growing is still great. It was just a great idea to do something like that. Swizz and Tim always say they wanna give people their flowers while they’re still here, and that’s super important.

What’s going on with your series coming to Twitch?
It’s called Dr. Lil Jon. People can come in, ask me questions about different stuff, and I’m gonna give them my perspective. I’ve been tweaking the idea for awhile, so it’s a couple of weeks out, probably around October, before we do the first one. That’s gonna be fun because of the hilarious conversations we have in the chats during the live sets. When it’s finally produced, it’s gonna be even crazier, so we’ll see what happens.

How was it producing the new Ying Yang Twins single, “Twerkin’ in the Mirror,” with your son, DJ Young Slade?
It’s life coming full circle. Even before he was born, he had a connection to music. Me and my wife would be in the studio, and every time I would press play on the drum machine, he would kick. When he was a baby, I had a Roland TR-808 drum machine in the house, and he would crawl to the pads. He started DJ-ing around 11, making his own mashups and bootlegs at 14, and he’s been producing for a while and dropped his first single during the pandemic. When he’s home, he’s my engineer: recording me and doing whatever I need.

I sent the idea for the song to Ying Yang; me and my son looked at each other when they sent it back because the vocals didn’t really match. At the same time, it went over another beat we did, and they sounded amazing on that. We’ve made three songs so far, but we’re taking it as it comes. “Twerkin’ in the Mirror” has already gotten a great response. It’ll be up on all of the streaming platforms in the next couple of weeks. Initially, I just wanted to push it out to the DJs. We serviced “Turn Down For What” to DJs, and they were the ones that broke the song, then we were able to go to a major label with it. With this, we’re doing the same thing. It’s great sharing knowledge with him because I have all of this experience from producing so many artists for so many years, It’s great to now pass that down to him. It’s really cool to hear his take on something. I take what he asks me to do and go a step further, which makes music even doper. You can’t collaborate with everybody because the vibe doesn’t always work. We vibe really well together, so we don’t always have to tell each other certain things.

Do you have an update on the two schools in Ghana that you assisted with funding?
I’m pretty sure everything is good. Pencils of Promise is the charity that puts everything together, deals directly with the government over there, and creates the curriculum. That was quite an experience to donate money and get people to match my donations to build two schools. To go over there, see the process, the community building, talk to the kids, and see how appreciative they are. What was there before were schools that were four poles with a covering where it’s super hot. In one area where a school was being built, the kids were being taught under a mango tree. Kids need a proper environment to learn in. I’m glad to be a part of creating something that could impact the lives of hundreds and thousands of kids.

How did becoming one of Jermaine Dupri’s very first A&R executives at So So Def set the tone for your career?
The So So Def Bass All-Stars compilations were my first major endeavors in the music industry period. It was a fun time doing those records because Jermaine let me do me. I picked the records, paired the producers with the artists, and I made everything happen. I learned a lot about putting records together because I literally had to do everything. That was Freaknik time, so we were promoting and breaking records all the time. That knowledge allowed me to start my own label, BME Recordings; get a deal with Warner Records; and sign Trillville, Lil’ Scrappy, and E-40.

How does it feel seeing Southern hip-hop and Atlanta go from being underground and marginalized in the mainstream to becoming the center of entertainment and pop culture?
I’m extremely happy and proud seeing the home team kill it. I remember going to Outkast’s album release party in New York and the crowd booed them. It was tough. The artists now don’t realize how hard it was for Atlanta artists to break through New York. They don’t understand that you had to go through New York to become big in the music business. They didn’t respect us as artists early on. It’s different now because all of the New York rappers sound like Atlanta rappers. [chuckles] It’s amazing, but I think back on how hard it was to get ourselves established.

How do you respond to people referring to you as a legend or an icon?
I think about the early days going to smaller towns like Raleigh, Birmingham, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the people were right there with me. There were no giant venues with big stages, but it was a lot of energy from the people who supported you from the very beginning and helped you get to where you at. I’ve done some really big stuff, but I look at James Brown and Ray Charles and how they did it until they couldn’t do it anymore. I feel the same way. God gave me this talent, and I gotta do it ‘til I can’t do it no more. There’s so much more for me to do.

Playwright Katori Hall chats about Atlanta-filmed P-Valley, strip club wings, and representation

Katori Hall
Katori Hall

Photograph by Diane Zhao

When playwright Katori Hall was pitching her breakout hit Starz series P-Valley, several network executives passed on the idea before she could even say one word. They assumed the hour-long drama, adapted from her 2015 play about the people in and around a strip club in the Mississippi Delta, was a story that didn’t matter.

Hall begged to differ. P-Valley was much more than scantily clad Black women sliding down a pole. It’s a space for the Ivy League-trained dramatist to tell unapologetic, dynamic, and nuanced stories about marginalized voices within the Black community for Black audiences.

The Memphis native took six years to research, interview, and connect with over 40 strippers. She intentionally hired all women directors, strippers, and a majority women crew for each episode. She searched far and wide until she could wrangle some slappin’ Southern fried twerk songs by underground [female] acts for the soundtrack. And three episodes into P-Valley’s eight-episode order, the first-time showrunner, creator, and executive producer was given a second season.

Hall’s previous works, including Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love, Saturday Night Sunday Morning and The Blood Quilt, intersect themes around family, geography, race, class, gender, politics, love, faith, and sexuality. The Olivier Award winner soared to Broadway with both the MLK-themed play The Mountaintop in 2011 and the jukebox musical Tina—The Tina Turner Musical in 2019.

With theater indefinitely due to the pandemic, Hall has recently pivoted into the early stages of adapting her current stage play, The Hot Wing King, for television. She shared some laughs over the phone about going on a typical outing with her to strip clubs in Atlanta, using theater as a vehicle for change, P-Valley’s success and ties to Atlanta, and what Ryan Murphy’s director program taught her about making television.

How did you respond to the news that P-Valley is returning for season two?
I just feel vindicated. People did not expect a show about strippers to be as complex, thoughtful, and celebrated. I was just so happy for the audience that came out to view and support the show. It really shows it’s a necessary story, and we did this world and these women justice. Even before I landed at Starz with the pitch, there were networks that refused to even hear it because of assumptions about these women, and they didn’t think much of a show like this.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

How does the culture of Atlanta fit into P-Valley?
I was so overjoyed that we were able to shoot in Atlanta. We wanted to shoot in the South so it could feel very authentic, so we shot Atlanta for Mississippi. We really found a lot of places that had the same visual qualities. Chucalissa, Mississippi, is a town struggling to become a city but still is dealing with urban plight and inheritance of oppression and racism. Unfortunately, you can still find those spots in and right outside of Atlanta. A lot of the exterior locations, specifically in episode two, we shot around East Point. I was really grateful that we were able to be here in the Atlanta community to work with Atlanta-based, Black-owned businesses in terms of craft services. Most of the team, particularly our production heads, are of color: a lot of them women. That was a dream for me to be able to be back in the South ‘cause I’m from Memphis. When I’m talking about, “I want some flats,” people know what I’m talkin’ about. [And] it was exciting because we were shooting at Tyler Perry Studios.

What strip clubs did you hit while making P-Valley?
Oh wow. A lot. Magic City, of course. As a matter of fact, our core background dancers dance at Magic City. I hit up Peaches, Gold Rush, Rumors, and Strokers. I even went out to the Pink Pony, but that was different [laughs]. I’m sure there’s a few I’m forgetting . . . oh, Blue Flame and Follie’s!

What does a night out at the strip club with you look like?
You know we going get all kinds of hot wings. I’m weird. Not everybody likes lemon pepper dry, but it’s something about the freshly fried, crackly skin with the citrus and pepper. I like hot hot; I don’t do suicide because I ain’t finna die on nobody [laughs]. I love me some chicken tenders. People don’t realize strip clubs, particularly in Atlanta, are fine dining. Quite frankly, hot wings are fine dining. There’s a gourmet approach a lot of strip clubs take when it comes to doing their hot wings. We’d have some drinks. I’m a lightweight, so I’ll have midori sours while everybody else has their Patron.

What’s interesting is when I do go to clubs, it ends up being a conversation with the women that are dancing because I’m always so intrigued by who they are, why they chose their stage name, how long they’ve been doing it. I don’t really throw dollars at them; I throw questions just because that was always the mode I was in when I would come into that space. Time with me in the strip club is a lot of food and a lot of stories.

Could you share your experiences studying theater at various Ivy League schools as a Black woman from the South?
I didn’t have any family members that attended school in those places. [But] I never thought that I couldn’t attend Columbia, Harvard, and Julliard because my parents demanded excellence from me; they never allowed me to make B’s, so I got in the habit of becoming excellent. When I got into those institutions, it did not feel like I did not belong, but I’d be made fun of over how I spoke. I know I’m country, but city-country. I made a choice to embrace my Southerness and therefore embrace my Blackness when it came to how I was going to communicate in the world. By deciding to be an artist, that allowed me that freedom.

The moment I decided I was going to be a dramatist was when my teacher sent us to the library to get a play that had a scene for me and my scene partner’s type. We’re these two young Black women going into the Columbia University library, pulling down all of these plays, and we couldn’t find nothing. I mean nothing. I went back to our teacher and asked for suggestions for a scene involving two young Black women. She sat there; 10, 20, 40 seconds went by, and she could not think of one single play with one scene involving two Black women. That was the moment for me that I realized I was gonna have to write those plays; it was the foundation. I wrote my first play, Hoodoo Love, a year after that. I knew there was a scarcity of voices, specifically Black female voices. Once I graduated from Harvard, that’s when I focused more on my writing.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

Did landing two productions on Broadway [The Mountaintop and Tina] affect your confidence?
It doesn’t do much because it doesn’t help you write the next one [laughs]. Making it to Broadway twice is two feathers in my cap; that’s an achievement no matter who a person is. I’m proud, but it’s not the end-all-be-all for me. The unfortunate thing about theater is Broadway has not been successful in cultivating a Black audience. I was always very frustrated with having stories about Black folks and Black actors on-stage, but when they look out into the audience, they don’t see reflections of their own selves in the seats. So what TV does is allow me to reach the people I’ve been writing for much [more] easily, because TV is a much more accessible medium. That’s always been my goal; I’m writing for us, and these shows are written by us. My family doesn’t have to travel to New York City to see a show of mine. They can press a button on a Sunday night in their living room, and they are in the Pynk strip club with city-country people who talk and are just like them.

How did your participation in Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation Directing Program better prepare you for your television debut?
They select mostly writers and directors of color, particularly women. They put us with whoever is directing a particular episode of one of Ryan’s shows, and we get to shadow them from the roota to the toota; from pre- to post-production. We get to really have an entry point into how episodic TV is produced and disseminated. The program was everything to me because I had never stepped foot on a set. I’d written one season for a show that unfortunately didn’t move forward.

I was assigned to Brad Buecker, the executive producer for American Horror Story. It was mind-blowing to me to use the power of pretend to tell the truth about the world with characters. I just loved walking on set, asking all of these questions, and figuring out the best way to do coverage with the director. I really got a close-up view with my own eyes of how a TV episode comes together. Seeing how the machine runs made me so confident when it came to me walking on my own set. A lot of times, you think you don’t belong in certain places.

P-Valley Starz
A still from P-Valley

Photograph courtesy of Starz

What does it mean going from not seeing yourself in those plays to now creating opportunities on and off camera for others like you with P-Valley?
It’s a blessing, and I don’t take it lightly. It’s also my responsibility as someone who has experienced an erasure of herself. I know what it feels like to not see nuance in how you’re portrayed. We’re showing that Black women can rule the world, move the culture, create something groundbreaking and unique together, and be successful in these positions of power. It dismantles that myth that Black women don’t belong at the table. The great thing is we’ve decided to make our own table, ‘cause these wings are the bomb. We’re in an amazing moment in our society where things are transforming. Storytelling can have a hand in making sure that we continue to push forth empathy for people who have been dehumanized or made to feel invisible. It’s time for so many voices to be heard and groups of people to be seen. P-Valley is a part of a revolution in that way. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m truly the happiest artist in the world.

Q&A: KP The Great on his path from artist to executive, protest music, and more

Kawan Prather KP The GreatKawan “KP The Great” Prather’s multi-hyphenated career in the music business all started with him simply asking questions. The Vine City native and founding member of the Dungeon Family’s P.A. became a well of industry knowledge for his group’s in-house production team, a then unknown trio calling themselves Organized Noize.

That same curiosity and interpersonal savvy led to LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid appointing Prather to the hit factory as its vice president of A&R in 1996, further allowing him to launch his own imprint, Ghet-O-Vision, which launched the careers of both T.I. and YoungBloodZ. Foregoing a college education at nearby Clark Atlanta University, the Tri-Cities High School grad ascended to various senior level roles at Columbia Records, Sony Urban, Def Jam, and Atlantic Records. Prather took home a Grammy in 2015 for his contributions on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and has spent the last five years as head of music for Pharrell’s company i am OTHER. Now based in Los Angeles, Prather recently hopped on the phone to chat about his storied career in the music business, making protest music, and other ventures to come.

How did your journey go from recording artist to successful music executive?
Right after P.A. shot our debut video, “Lifeline,” for the CB4 soundtrack, I found out a bunch of stuff I just didn’t understand or didn’t make sense to me, and my questions were always behind the curtain. [Producer and former TLC manager] Pebbles would always tell me I talked like a manager sometimes, but I just wanted to understand so a manager wouldn’t tell me something I didn’t get. She told me I was doing another job people get paid to do at the record company [and] explained to me what an A&R was. I had a conversation with L.A. Reid; he [said] the same thing and offered me a job at LaFace doing it. On tour, I was meeting artists, producers, and directing them back to L.A. and Pebbles. L.A. started giving me a commission when he used my ideas or introductions. It started from there and got to a point I was the happenstance leader of our group. It started becoming a point where A&R was taking up more time. I’d be on the road on the bus in the backseat taking conference calls about OutKast and Usher as we’re going to do a show. I just had to make a decision. If I wanted to be great, I had to focus on one.

As more Black executives publicly share their experiences across industries, what’s been your experience at major record labels?
There’s never been a place we’re fully accepted. We’re almost always an experiment. People value our actions, but not necessarily our thoughts, so they don’t think we think things through. They think “freestyle” means it doesn’t require thought when it’s based on all of our different experiences that we have muscle memory about. The first time I went up to a Sony boardroom and sat at the head end of the table, this executive introduced me and my credentials. He patted me on the head right before he introduced me and sat down. I slapped his hand loudly. He snatched his hand back, apologized, and tried to explain himself; I told him it felt like disrespect. When we came back in, I patted him on his head. From that moment on, we never had an issue.

What we have to do is communicate properly because there are cultural differences, but it’s on you to say what you will and won’t accept in that culture. It takes a strong sense of self to maintain that under all circumstances. The one time you let it slide, it becomes acceptable. A lot of time, you have to explain culture in our business because it’s a big part of our value and economic system.

How does it feel witnessing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” becoming among the definitive protest anthems of this generation?
I was grateful to be able to have any part in that. It’s a joint effort: Pharrell started it, then me and my contribution, Kendrick put his perspective on it, and Sounwave added some production to it. But it shows people from different places working together on the same accord. All of us have a perspective, but we don’t have all the points. There’ll always be adversity, but if what we did can fuel inspiration and inspire somebody to do something to stand up for themselves, then I’m grateful to be able to be part of something that matters this much to people and connects.

 

What are your thoughts on activism and protests in and out of Atlanta?
It inspires me because Atlanta is a city built on Black forward movement. I watched my son, who just turned 23, out there protesting on his birthday. The thread is still there; we understand that we’re not in the place where we need to be, but we continue to push and accelerate that push. There’s a different style of protests now because the younger generation is over it; it doesn’t make sense to them. They have enough information now to say something is stupid or wrong, and that’s inspiring. The music we made, whether it be Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” or Kendrick’s “Alright,” has helped to put the thought out there that there’s more we could be doing because this is our culture. I’m excited. Atlanta put that in me; “Alright” is Atlanta-influenced as well, so Atlanta influences everything in that way. We were influenced by Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy, and Hosea Wiliams: a bunch of different styles, but they were all Black, authentic, and for the people. I want to have a part in that legacy so that my kids can walk out and feel confident that they have a shot.

How does the social climate translate to your work as the head of music for i am OTHER?
What Pharrell has, which I think a lot of people don’t, is a childlike honesty. I’m probably more outwardly militant, but his Blackness is very real. He is a student of people and culture; he pays attention to others. In the studio, I learned from him to pinpoint those moments that are authentic; that’s where the songs are. As a producer, he’s a sponge. He brings things back in a way that you weren’t thinking about. We just came from Virginia, where he was able to convince the governor of Virginia to make Juneteenth a state holiday. We’re all in this place where we’re just trying to use our influence and know-how to do what these kids are doing. At i am OTHER, we’re about cultural enhancement on top of music and art. We’re fully engaged and moving. It’s about being somewhere but not always letting everybody know where that is. What we do is not as flashy and can seem a little silent.

You recently curated Spotify’s official Father’s Day playlist. How did you get involved with that project?
I make playlists a lot. There was a moment I realized the music I was listening to really wasn’t encouraging, so it made me think about the ‘you are what you eat’ theory but with music. A friend of mine at Spotify asked me if I would be down to curate a Father’s Day playlist. Most of my friends are fathers, even the ones that are in the music business, and we have conversations about this stuff. I thought I could put a playlist together based on these conversations we have that end up being songs or in songs. I started going through my memory of what lines do it for me like Andre 3000’s verse on Outkast’s “Return of the G.” It’s gems in these songs from fathers with morals. It made it that much more fun because I know the people, so I knew that the source of information is coming from a true place. The gems would resonate not just with fathers, but men looking for the information. And I got to put a song from my 23-year-old son on there as well. It’s a payoff for me.

What’s next for you?
Prior to the shutdown, I started [doing] music supervision for film and TV. One is a TV show with Tracy Oliver on Amazon; another is a documentary on the Godfather of Harlem based on the ‘60s and revolution music. We’re doing a lot: co-writing a TV show with a friend. I moved out to Los Angeles to widen the scope a year-and-a-half ago. I’m in college right now. [laughs]

Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter arrives in Atlanta to show off her new H&M collection

Ruth E. Carter H&M Collection Atlanta
Ruth E. Carter at a launch party for her H&M collection, Ruthless, at the Georgia Freight Depot

Photograph courtesy of H&M

For over three decades, costume designer Ruth E. Carter has combined strong color schemes with fine fabrics to capture the nuances of black culture for classic films and television programs.

The couturier’s attention to detail, thorough research, respect for various eras, and upbeat interpersonal savvy have made her a highly sought-after designer, with credits including Mo Better Blues, The Five Heartbeats, BAPS, Sparkle, Baby Boy, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Love and Basketball, Being Mary Jane, Amistad, Selma, Roots and Seinfeld.

Ruth E. Carter H&M Collection AtlantaRuth E. Carter H&M Collection AtlantaCarter made history as the first African American woman to earn the Academy Award in Costume Design for the spirited Afrofuturist-flavored dress for Marvel’s Atlanta-filmed blockbuster Black Panther, also earning the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its only three Oscars (all of which were awarded to Black Panther in 2019). Passionate about her craft, Carter has turned her “love letters to black culture and history” into Ruthless, an 11-piece collection hued with liberation colors—red, black, and green—in partnership with Swedish clothing store H&M.

Ruth E. Carter H&M Collection AtlantaRuthless, a mononym Carter adopted from crew members on the set of Spike Lee films, is an ode to ’90s fashion themed around authenticity, independence, strength, cultural appreciation, unity, and trusting one’s voice. Debuting in stores on February 13, Carter and H&M curated a New York City block party-inspired launch activation at Georgia Railroad Freight Depot on February 21 that featured props, personal memorabilia, and costumes she designed for Black Panther, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Dolemite Is My Name, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X.

Atlanta sat for a chat with Carter, who immediately enthusiastically referred to Atlanta as “the Republic of Wakanda,” about the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, her orientation into costume design, her decision to partner with H&M, and plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your earliest memories coming to Atlanta?
It was School Daze. Spike [Lee] was a Morehouse Man. Robi Reed [the casting director] and I both went to Hampton University [in Virginia]. When we all came together as filmmakers and Spike decided School Daze was going to be his first studio picture, he brought us all into it. It was a shorthand. We knew what the story was: the frats, the wannabes, the jigaboos, the Gammites. All of that. We started prepping it in New York though. I did a lot of things you see in the [H&M] line: t-shirt and sweatshirt designs. But back then, we were trying to uplift the race. That was actually both my first experience in film and actually creating a product. Spike and [his production company] 40 Acres & a Mule was the beginning, and it still resonates. We did Do the Right Thing after that. Everything still resonates. It’s a blessing.

How did attending a Historically Black College and University [HBCU] lay the foundation for your success?
Hampton was a family legacy; I had uncles, cousins and my aunt all attend there. My entire family would ask me, ‘You’re going to Hampton, right?’ [laughs]. My uncle, Rufus Easter, who recently passed, was the director of auxiliary services there for many, many years. He retired there. Once I got into Kelsey Hall, my freshman dorm, I had a real sense of home and family. I was an education major, and I come from a legacy of teachers. That experience was enriching. Once I became a theatre major and decided costume design was what I wanted to pursue, the foundation was there. Hampton didn’t have the classes, but they did have a costume shop that was empty. And I took it on and took it over. I did all of the costumes for the plays and the music department whenever they did musicals. I created my own curriculum in a lot of ways. Hampton gave me such a wonderful start. I had the most amazing mentorship. My instructors were cheering me on to pursue it because I was the only one who was doing costumes.

How has it been designing costumes for Eddie Murphy’s much lauded hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, along with his roles in Dolemite is My Name and the upcoming Coming to America 2?
I’ve been a longtime collaborator with Eddie. He’s part of my heart. He trusts me. We can work together, and I actually know what he likes and what he doesn’t like. When I came back to working with him after 10 years and we were setting up Dolemite [a biopic released on Netflix about blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore], this was a passion project for him. I felt excited to be back with Eddie, and then I was excited to actually do a great job in making it as real to Rudy Ray Moore because Eddie admired him. So I wanted Eddie to feel like he was in Moore’s closet, putting on them clothes. I had to make him a pair of platforms out of a pair of tennis shoes so he would be a little bit more comfortable and actually do the work.

Ruth E. Carter H&M Collection AtlantaHow have you influenced the roster of predominantly black filmmakers you’ve collaborated with?
They didn’t ever claim to be costume designers. They knew that they wanted to tell a story that was inclusive of different types of specialty costumes like Flyguy and those goldfish platforms [from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka], but also normal, everyday people that we know in our communities. I was the expert that came in and said I could do the costuming. They felt there was a meeting of the minds, and we connected. I helped them tell our stories about our people.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility now that you’ve made history as the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Costume Design and one of the first Oscars for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Thank you for saying that; that’s always missed. Sometimes, I feel we miss that one because maybe Marvel is a little bit ashamed. I think they’re proud honestly, but being the first is actually a sad commentary that we’re still experiencing. We need to be on the tenth costume designer winning for a Marvel film, but it just doesn’t work like that. Life is short, time passes, people have lives and things in front of them where they can’t pursue their dreams completely. But I hope that I’m an inspiration to those who have started with single parent households, one of eight children saying you can follow that dream, trust your voice, have that passion, and go all the way to the Oscars stage. That’s what I represent; I need another t-shirt saying ‘You can do it’ because I believed in myself. You have to have a real passion for what you’re doing: not the end result, the gratitude, or the awards.

You’re now partnering with H&M. Were you concerned about the controversy and social media backlash involving a 2018 ad that featured a young black boy wearing a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”?
We can get on a soapbox and keep criticizing a thing. Sometimes, it’s our responsibility to also turn it around. I looked at this as H&M needed to turn it around. That means if I do something really positive, I’ll be blown out there and become attainable to so many people. H&M’s voice is very widespread. How many opportunities do costume designers get to do something like this? People make mistakes, and we have to actually go through this life with empathy. If we want inclusion and equity, we got to make people not feel so fearful that we are going to nail them to the cross. Maybe it’s our responsibility to teach, guide and redirect, so this is a redirection.

Ruth E. Carter H&M Collection AtlantaTell us about the scholarship as part of your collaboration with H&M.
H&M always gives a scholarship when they have a collaboration, so they asked me which university, and of course I said Hampton. It was [Hampton University president] Dr. [William] Harvey that said to not just make it a scholarship, but make it an endowment. An endowment is going to be here after I’m gone. It’s a generous one; a $25,000 scholarship to the Ruth E. Carter Endowment at Hampton. Who could’ve dreamed that I would be able to do this for my beloved home by the sea and be able to offer back? I’m walking in my gratitude right now. What can I tell you?

What’s coming up for you?
I just finished Coming to America 2 last November. I have a book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter, that I just started, so I think when Black Panther 2 is released, I’ll release the book with a lot of Marvel illustrations, my early stuff, and my stuff from Hampton. I hope I can make a really fun book for people to gift to their kids and inspire them further.

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones: “I want everyone to read [the 1619 Project] because it’s the American story”

Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project Morehouse
Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at Morehouse College on January 24.

Photograph courtesy of Morehouse College

New York Times Magazine staff writer and former Atlanta resident Nikole Hannah-Jones did something unheard of, even after she was told countless times by critics that her efforts would ruin her career.

But the calculated risk paid off. She curated the 1619 Project, a special issue for the Times developed entirely by African Americans that gives an unapologetic bird’s-eye-view on how modern inequality toward black people has evolved since enslaved Africans first landed on American soil in 1619.

The compilation of art, essays, photography, poetry, and interviews was released on August 20, 2019, 400 years after the arrival of the first African slaves, and has sold out numerous editions already. It trended on social media and received mixed criticism from historians, but Hannah-Jones says she was wowed when she received praise from everyone from Oprah to 95-year-old women living in the South.

The Pulitzer Center partnered with Jones, a MacArthur Fellow and Peabody Award winner, to offer a free curriculum around the 1619 Project for educators. Jones even raised funds to publish an additional 200,000 copies to distribute to various schools and community institutions.

Taking seven months to complete, the 1619 Project continues to expand. It’s now a podcast, a special section in the Times, an interactive website, a series of live events, and an upcoming series of books.

Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project Morehouse
Nikole Hannah-Jones

Photograph courtesy of Morehouse College

The former investigative reporter for ProPublica and the Oregonian was in Atlanta last week speaking at a handful of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. The good-humored history buff-meets-news junkie came directly from delivering a keynote address before the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute to a speaking engagement at Morehouse College on Friday evening, where she also chatted with Atlanta about the 1619 Project’s origins and its ongoing acclaim, how she plans to continue to spread 1619 Project’s message across various communities, and her relationship with Atlanta.

Tell me about your connection to Georgia.
I moved to Georgia a year after I graduated from Notre Dame. Our Black Student Union had taken a trip to Atlanta. It was the first time I’d ever lived in a city where there were so many professional black people. I’d never experienced that before in my life. I wanted to live and experience a city where black people are running things because where I grew up [in Iowa], you didn’t see that. I worked for a year after graduation, saved, and just packed my bags, moved down here with no job. I lived in Georgia for two years, and I did a lot of partying [laughs]. I met my husband here. All of his immediate family are in the metro area, and we come here at least twice a year.

Is visiting almost like a homecoming for you?
I never lost a connection to the city. I actually thought Atlanta would be the place I would live forever, but it didn’t work out that way. I charge for speeches, but I don’t charge Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to bring this conversation to [Morehouse’s] campus. It feels awesome.

Where exactly did the idea for the 1619 Project start?
That’s a hard answer. I’ve been thinking about this project for many, many years. It brings all of my past work into fruition in one place. Many of the stories and pieces of it are things I’ve thought about for a long time but didn’t have the opportunity or time to report. But around November 2018, I’d already been thinking about the 400th anniversary [of the first African slaves arriving in America]. I was on book leave, thinking about returning to work, and really just understanding that most Americans probably had never heard of 1619 and many important moments in our history. I started thinking what would be the best way to do that in the New York Times. I got this idea that we should dedicate an entire issue of the magazine not to telling history, but to actually assess a modern legacy of slavery. This was a chance to do that journalistically: make a sweeping argument across a spectrum of American life in ways that I hope will be very surprising to most Americans. I pitched it, and it went from there.

How did you keep all of the contributors to the 1619 Project on the same page?
It was very, very important to me that most of the people who are going to be telling this story were going to be the people who descended from those that were enslaved. We had to be the ones who were producing the project, so the writers, essayists, photographers, and original artists are all black. Seeing all of those black faces sends a message and sets the tone. We weren’t working in a newsroom. We didn’t have a cohesive unit because everyone was working remotely. [Instead] there was an intense understanding of the mission of what we were trying to do. A lot of folks had to move things around on their schedule to make it work. They were willing to do that because it was so important for them to mark this moment in this way. It’s a very hard history. There’s no part of the project I didn’t have a hand in. There’s the pressure of wanting to do right by the story and our ancestors. I knew there were going to be some white people who loved it and hated it. But if black people hated it, I would’ve been devastated. I was always thinking of who was I doing this for.

Your vision has become a special section in the Times, a free curriculum, and a podcast. How does that feel to see how the 1619 Project touches people?
It’s surreal. We were not trying to worry about white sensibilities and feelings with this project. To be able to actually do that in the paper-of-record is something I still can’t believe they let me do.

The 1619 Project is also being adapted to a book, right?
A series of books. We sold two adult books, a graphic novel, and four children’s books from elementary school to high school. The adult book will come out in 2021. It’ll be everything that you saw in the original project but expanded. There will be four to six additional essays covering different aspects of American life that were not covered in the project, and it features some other writers who weren’t in the project.

Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project MorehouseThe Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism, which you co-founded, hosted a training workshop at Morehouse College. Tell me a little about that.
Our training is typically a day-and-a-half. The introductory boot camps are [to try] to help journalists get their feet wet in investigative reporting. It’s not going to take you from being a beat reporter to a projects reporter in one day, but what it will do is demystify a lot of the tools, give that basic framework, and really help folks understand that all journalism uses investigative tools. You don’t have to have six months to do a project. We cover a very broad range of topics. A lot of time, journalists of color don’t admit what we don’t know because we feel like people will take that and think that we’re incompetent and not supposed to be there. But you can come here, and we’ll give you those basic skills you can build upon. One of our key goals for the Ida B. Wells Society for this year is to train many more HBCU [students] to make sure we really reach the core group of folks we want to benefit.

What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of how important the 1619 Project has been to black people. I’m very conscious of the audience at the New York Times. It was very, very important to me. I want everyone to read this because it’s the American story. It helps you not just understand black folks, but our country. I wanted to make sure that our communities were seeing this and engaging in it. It’s important we make this accessible to our folks. This is literally the first project in my 20 years as a journalist I think my regular, working-class family actually read. It mattered to them. I’m proud of the amount of opposition I’ve gotten to the project because what that tells me is people fear the knowledge in the project and [shows me] the ability for the project to be transformative about how we thought about black people and our country’s origins.

Our favorite Atlanta albums of the 2010s

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.

Superproducer Swizz Beatz drops by Atlanta to give a New York artist his first installation

Swizz Beatz
Swizz Beatz

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Grammy-winning superproducer/entrepreneur Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean has been making quite a few stops to Atlanta. This past July, the husband of superstar Alicia Keys worked the console in J.Cole’s Dreamville residency at Tree Sound Studios. He engaged in a live conversation on production with Timbaland at Diddy’s REVOLT Summit in September.

But when the producer famous for crafting hits for DMX, Jay Z, T.I., Beyoncè, Kanye West, Drake, Rick Ross, Eve, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne, and Whitney Houston came to 200 Peachtree on October 24, Dean was completely in his element.

The cofounder of an art collection/curation platform, The Dean Collection; a touring art fair, No Commission; and now a mobile app, The Sm[ART] Collection, gave Oriel Ceballos—a visual artist who was pepper-sprayed and tackled by New York’s Washington Square park officers in October allegedly for selling his work on the ground at the park instead of on a table—his very first installation while he hosted Bacardi Rum Room’s inaugural stop in the ATL.

Dean, 41, chatted with Atlanta magazine over a neat glass of golden Gran Reserve Diez; the art enthusiast and Harvard grad revisits attending three high schools in DeKalb County and shares some of his plans for creatives in Atlanta.

What is your connection to Atlanta?
Actually, Atlanta saved my life coming from New York [when I was 15], running from the wild, and coming into a little bit of sanity within the wild. I went to three high schools here: Redan, Stone Mountain, and Open Campus. I was able to open up my creative resources here; the Eastside is stomping grounds.

Swizz Beatz and Oriel Ceballos attend the BACARDI Rum Room
Swizz Beatz and artist Oriel Ceballos at the Bacardi Rum Room in Atlanta

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

What is it about our city that allowed you to give Oriel Ceballos his very first show?
Stuff like that is what I like to do. Unfortunately, the situation made me go into his world of creativity. He’s a great artist, but it wasn’t about the art. It was about creating a safe space for him to be able to do something positive, which he was doing. No cops are going to drag him up out of here. There are so many artists around the world that are trying to do the right things, but society gets in their way. That situation could’ve really been bad. We’ve seen a lot of those situations that were worse. For him to still be here and celebrating with us is a plus. Giving him a platform to put him on and let him shine in his true light is a plus. That’s bigger than everything.

Swizz Beatz
Swizz Beatz at the Barcardi Rum Room in Atlanta

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Now that you have the largest, privately owned collection of Gordon Parks photographs, does the Dean Collection or No Commission have any plans to bring any of its collections to Atlanta?
We didn’t add the [Gordon Parks] collection to the Dean Collection to just hang on our walls. We added it so that the culture could have access to it. We look forward to bringing it to Atlanta where the people that Gordon Parks shot can actually see the photos of them reflected in the earlier years. It’s deep.

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