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Nina Simone was way ahead of her time. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the new Netflix documentary – that went up on the site this weekend – clearly depicts this fact. Oscar nominated, Liz Garbus and producer/music industry vet, Jayson Jackson have come up with a tale of art, power, pain, and sacrifice that has lit up the independent film festival circuit and is a must see.

Simone was a bi-polar, bi-sexual, genre defying artist/activist, whose career arc began as a child prodigy in the Black church. While growing up in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, Jim Crow was master of all he purveyed. But in spite of this, Nina’s obvious talent attracted the attention of white patronage and tutelage. Eventually, aspirations were stoked within the young artist’s soul for a career in classical music. The dream of glory on the stages of the great European concerts halls, playing the compositions of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms was dashed, when racist thinking prevented her acceptance into a prestigious Philadelphia based music school.

Young Nina found hope and opportunity nonetheless, and began to pursue a career as an Atlantic City nightclub singer. Notoriety that she received from this period led to a recording contract and the release of her smash rendition of Gershwin’s standard “I Loves You Porgy” and a stunning debut at the Newport Jazz Festival. What then appeared to be a promising career as a jazz influenced standards singer was redirected by the bombing death of four little girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church, the assassination of Mississippi activist, Medgar Evers and Nina’s eventual participation in a civil rights movement in full swing.

With all of her standing in the international creative community, she chose to fight for the rights of her people. Nina’s commitment to change, to justice and to better may have caused her to lose millions. The radicalized Simone performed for marchers on the eve of the Selma protests, hung out with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes and became the next door neighbor of Malcolm X. Simone’s defiant expression of Afrocentric creativity not only planted seeds for the eventual emergence of hip hop, but found supporters and followers in a nascent feminist movement that has flowered into a serious presidential candidacy for Hillary Clinton.

Last February, when John Legend received his Best Original Song Oscar for “Glory,” his collaboration with Common, from the soundtrack of “Selma,” he both quoted and thanked Nina Simone when he said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” Through his music and his work with the Black Lives Matter Movement, Legend has proven to be a creative and political son of Nina Simone’s that she might have been proud of. Along with Talib Kweli, J. Cole, Jigga and Q-Tip, Legend has risked commercial acceptance by raising his voice for justice.

The recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Charleston remind us that the struggle that Simone was engaged in is not over, and that lessons from the past must inform our fight for a better present and a more hopeful tomorrow. Revolutionary activist, Angela Davis has contributed liner notes to a forthcoming compilation album, “Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone” that has been inspired by the film, and that will feature five new vocal performances from Ms. Lauryn Hill. Davis wrote this of Simone, “I first heard Nina Simone’s music as a high school student in the late 1950’s in New York. Although her name did not yet by itself evoke black freedom, as when she later sang “All I want is equality/ For my sister, my brother, and me,” I do not think that I was alone in feeling that something in her phenomenal voice beckoned us toward the battle to come. It was from Nina Simone that we learned, for example, how not to interpret the tactical importance of nonviolence as mitigation of our collective anger against racism. Thus “Mississippi Goddamn” became as important an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement as “We Shall Overcome.”

On this last weekend of Black Music Month, and while we fight to reform an unjust system that must be reminded that Black Lives Matter, it might be instructive to watch “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and remember how much further we must travel before we overcome and how hard Nina Simone fought to get us here.

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THE BLACK MESSIAH

Interesting moment we’re living through; just last weekend, Chris Rock returned to the big screen with his self-written and directed starring vehicle “Top Five”, a sweet, funny and romantic tale that co-stars Rosario Dawson, and has been deeply influenced by Chris’ love of Woody Allen films. My love of Woody Allen films has given me the lens to see Chris’s work in its proper light, and I have to recommend ‘Top Five” wholeheartedly. Not surprisingly, audiences are responding enthusiastically and have given the top banana two thumbs up to the tune of a $7million opening weekend-good enough to place it in the top five of all films that played last week in the US.

Sunday night, I finished reading an excellent book by former Huffington Post editor, Marcus Baram. His debut effort is a biography on the activist, poet, blues, jazz, and soul man, Gil Scott-Heron entitled, “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” and it’s stellar. It is the perfect companion to Scott-Heron’s own 2012 memoir “The Last Holiday”. Baram’s book gives great insight into Gil’s eccentric ride in the music business, and his battles with commercial and corporate expectations, family responsibilities, the press, band mates and addiction. It also gives political, cultural and historic context to Scott-Heron’s poetry and political activism. It is a must read for these revolutionary times that we’re living through.

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CHRIS ROCK and ROSARIO DAWSON

The day before I finished Baram’s book, word of another troubled Black genius came across my Facebook newsfeed, Bad Boy/Soul Man, D’Angelo has returned to the fray with a flurry of excitement. News of his first full – length studio project in 15 years broke the Internet when “Sugah Daddy”, a set up track from “Black Messiah”, the highly anticipated album, was made available for streaming, and as a free download for a limited time. The buzz was deafening, I followed, and I went to hear it.

I’d heard “Sugah Daddy”, when I last saw D’Angelo perform, he was here in Charlotte, and he came through in September of 2012 as an opener on a Mary J. Blige tour in support of her “My Life II” project. D played “Sugah Daddy’ that night, and later at an impromptu backstage meeting with D and veteran Soul Music player, Alan Leeds, I expressed my support for “Sugah Daddy” as a lead single. My thinking was that even though it may not be a home run radio charter, it would serve well as a set up single. I remember saying, “Stop bullshitting, put the motherfucker out.” We all laughed at how easily my old promotion man’s humor and swagger could be called upon in the right circumstances.

Swagger and humor that I earned during my battles in the radio wars. You see, I spent nearly a decade as a promotion man during the period when Hip Hop bubbled up from the underground and became Black oil for the corporate multi-nationals. After that, I became an A&R man, the A&R man who signed D’Angelo to his first record deal. The one who rocked with him during the writing of his masterwork, “Brown Sugar”. So you see, I’m somewhat familiar with the “D’Angelo sound” and its roots.

It starts in the South and in the Black church. His granddaddy was a preacher, and his daddy was too, D was the director of the Senior Choir at his granddaddy’s church at the age of seven. All churches have hierarchies and Black churches are no different. The senior choir in a Black church is populated with the voices that are most steeped in the Black gospel tradition and feeling. They are entrusted to deliver all the show-stopping, house quaking, spirit invoking hymns on the Sundays they sing. Usually, after they have made a joyful noise, the collection plate gets passed around, and if they have done their job well, the congregation will shell out the cash in support of the lord. When you witness this as a young child, the connection between purity of expression, art and commerce is forever embedded in your psyche.

Like Gil Scott-Heron, D’Angelo is a gifted southerner who is deeply steeped in the Black arts of Blues, Gospel, and Soul, and his “Black Messiah” reflects it. Also like Scott-Heron’s work, it reflects his disdain for corporate interference and commercial considerations. The album is deep, Black, funky, exquisitely performed and confused. It has no clear direction and the songs are sung with muted and inaudible vocals. Lyrics have surfaced on various sites on the Internet – somebody over at RCA is really thinking. The project has inspired online debate as to whether or not it is an instant classic, unfinished or even good. As my friend Chris Rock shared with me, “It’s a beautiful mess”. I would agree. Projected first-week sales have been quoted at the 100,000 mark. D’Angelo, and all of the attendant controversy that comes with him is back.

In May of this year, here on this blog, I wrote an open letter to D that (amongst other things) chided him for fostering a hoax on the public as the self-anointed “future of the funk”. I stand corrected; he is funk’s last best hope of survival. “Black Messiah” is a miracle born out of resistance to corporate interference and an unwillingness to assimilate into a Black Music marketplace filled with compromised synth based juvenile love songs, and pre-fab white rappers. It is the music of struggle, of pain and woe. It is uncompromisingly and authentically Black, and quite funky.

Many have inquired about my thoughts. Frankly, it is not a record that I would have helped him make. As a creative businessman with an ear to the street and an eye on the bottom line, it would have been irresponsible to encourage an artist to release a record in this form. However, I may have been wrong. Part of what an A&R man must do is to support courageous experimentation. In this regard, apparently, D’Angelo’s courage knows no bounds, and his uncompromising resistance to creative guidance may pay off well. And this may be the ideal soundtrack for the chaotic and unpredictable moment that we are living through. I hope it ends differently for him than it did for Gil.

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SCOTT RUDIN and AMY PASCAL

Last month, Sony Pictures became the victim of a massive hack into its computer systems and the company’s dirty laundry has been incrementally aired over the web ever since. Fascinating details of the inner workings of a major Hollywood studio concerning salaries, material, talent, and politics have emerged and become a dynamic source of debate on the Interwebs.

One of the leaked e-mail threads, in particular, has stirred a tremendous amount of anger. Sony Pictures Chair, Amy Pascal and top Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin had a personal e-mail exchange where they both made a racist conjecture about Barak Obama’s taste in films. In light of a recent Hollywood Reporter cover story where my old friend Chris Rock penned an essay that spelled out the reality that Hollywood was a town filled with racist liberals who, on the whole, continue to exclude blacks from decision-making positions, both Pascal and Rudin look like country club rednecks who secretly have the confederate flag hanging over their fireplaces. Ironically, the event that prompted the poorly chosen private joke was a high-powered fundraiser for Obama that Pascal would be attending later. After the story hit the web, both Rudin and Pascal issued apologies the next day.

Yesterday morning, after I posted an account of the TV producing powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes accusation that the press had been less than forthcoming by describing Rudin and Pascal as “insensitive” rather than “racist” when she Tweeted, “U can put a cherry on a pile of shit but it don’t make it a sundae,” a young Facebook friend of mine inquired, “Where’s the NAACP on this?”

When I responded, “What do they need to do? They apologized. It’s over.”

My friend was not too pleased with my response and posted, “Racism isn’t over. Wish it were that simple.”

Producer and writer Shonda Rhimes, creator of the

THE POWERHOUSE

In my opinion, that’s not debatable but it is an oversimplification. I don’t apologize for racists, but I think there’s more at work here so I answered, “And what would you suggest? Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Jay-Z are involved in Sony’s biggest Christmas movie (Annie). Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, and Beyoncé have all worked with Screen Gems (a Sony division), any complaints from them? Scott Rudin has produced the new Chris Rock movie (Top Five), you expecting to hear anything from Chris? Pharrell had Sony’s biggest record this past year, worked on the last Spider-Man soundtrack, and hired Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar, you expecting to hear anything from them?”

He’s a smart kid, but an outsider whose reply indicated that he was less than impressed, “Facetiously, I suggest we say and do nothing and continue to receive handouts. Mere pittance. I say resoundingly, that there are more Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamars, Elbas, Foxxs…out there. While I love all of those individuals that you and I named, I suggest Hollywood stop going to the same individuals and let everyone on, not just Alicia, Idris, Lamar etc…. There are so many talented artists out there and they are being hindered and suffocated by the Pascals and Rudins of the world. Racism is subtle and cunning.”

It was early yesterday morning, and I didn’t have time to explain to my earnest friend the idea of bankability, the requirements to open a movie or that none of the previously mentioned artists were “let” in. No, they worked, clawed, fought and got themselves in a position where their talent was not only noticed but in demand. So I hit him with this, “I do not disagree that it’s cunning. I asked what would you do, not what you would have Hollywood do. You protest against policies not e-mails. Annie is not a pittance, and Will Smith is not taking handouts he is partnered with Sony management. Is there a need for more black involvement in Hollywood? Sure. Will boycotting Sony achieve that? I’m not sure it will. The real issues are these; 18 Sony employees in management are making north of half a million a year, none of them is black, and only one is a woman. Amy Pascal jokingly inquired of Rudin about what should she say to Obama because she doesn’t have enough black people in her circle. Entertainment is a closed network and cash intensive. If you know of independent third party financing that is really interested in serious entertainment driven by black creativity, let me know. I can help ’em get in the game quickly. You certainly can make your mark independently, but if you want to have true international success, you at some point will have to work within a corporate structure, and that means racists. Previously, the closest thing to this was the Imus situation and Donald Sterling neither of whom had the good sense to apologize. Rudin and Pascal have. Don’t expect to hear from the Hollywood NAACP on this they want to work.”

Are they racists? Perhaps. Was their exchange loaded with racist attitudes? Definitely. Are they discriminatory? That is the more important question, and in that regard the answer is less clear. Sony has helped Will Smith become a wealthy and powerful mogul. Before the hacking “Annie” was set to make a fortune for Smith, his producing partner Jay-Z and the film’s star, Jamie Foxx. Sony has also been instrumental in channeling the mega-wattage of Kevin Hart into films. Rudin has brought Denzel Washington, Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway, remade “Shaft” with Samuel L. Jackson, has a film version of the ’70s TV series “Good Times” in development, and is working with a friend of mine to develop a musical version of a classic ’70s blaxploitation film for the big screen. Though Pascal and Rudin’s private e-mails reveal racist attitudes that are troubling their practices are not exactly discriminatory.

Barak Obama’s white house called Pascal and Rudin’s apologies, “appropriate”. I would have to agree. In addition to Pascal’s written apology, she also called Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson to offer her apologies to them as well. Sharpton issued a statement that indicated that she needed to meet with him. That’s code for, “Hit me with a consultant’s check, hire my people, and I’ll help this go away for you.” Here’s where I am with it: If Al puts the bite on her for more gigs, access and content then this was all a good thing. I personally don’t care what the contents of her personal e-mails are as much as I care that her production budget, marketing budget, and slate are both more inclusive and more reflective of where we are right now.

These are heated times we live in. Race and class based discrimination seen through the lens of new technology and Social Media has various factions of society at each other’s throats. Cop killers are getting away with murdering black people, and in response, people of good will of all colors, and from varied backgrounds are uniting in solidarity for justice. Students, artists, athletes, workers, intellectuals and politicians have all participated in demonstrations, die ins, I can’t breathe ins and marches of some sort since the Staten Island and Ferguson grand jury decisions were made public.

Later today, three marches in Boston, New York and Washington will continue to illuminate the corrupt practices of the criminal justice system, and mount public pressure on elected officials to address the will of the people. Despite the long hard journey ahead this is a moment that gives hope. For those of you who are uncertain of the usefulness and impact that these acts will eventually have, remember this: The Eric Garner grand jury decision was shared with the public last week, and since then, worldwide reaction has been stunning. If change does not come it won’t be because we didn’t fight for it. Personally, I remain hopeful and I’m encouraged by the amount of love that has been displayed on a global basis.

I have several friends who are participating in the organizing, the marching, protesting and the all out pursuit of justice for those who have been unjustly murdered, and their families. Hopefully, we will all get through this period in better shape than when we started. And if they are paying attention to the drama of the moment, maybe Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin will green light and produce a film of quality that depicts the struggle that we are going through. If they do, they should hire me as the music supervisor. I know what they are missing.

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For Debbie, Sammy, Rush, Mike, Dream, The Justice League NYC, the inspired and the Freedom Fighters

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Based on what we’ve seen this past week, Sean Combs may have been on to something when he named his music cable network REVOLT. In keeping with his concept, unarmed demonstrators have taken to the streets all over the world to raise their collective voice in protest of injustice and police brutality. Twitter has been a beehive of first person citizen accounts, photos, posts that give the time and place of protests and links to mainstream media coverage. Just as during the Arab Spring uprising of a few years ago, Twitter has been essential for anyone interested in accurate information about the upheaval that has been simmering since last summer.

Combs gave us early signs of his vision, twenty-five years ago when as a rookie A&R executive working at Andre Harrell’s Uptown/MCA Records he guided young Mary J. Blige to the heights of the Urban Music World when they collaborated on her debut “What’s The 411”. Because of that record and the two Notorious B.I.G. Projects he did on his own Bad Boy imprint, Combs established himself as the model for every Hip Hop/R&B A&R man to follow, and MJB has become the most important Black Music artist of her generation. While others have come and gone she remains funky. With all the stress and strife in the world, her voice provides comfort in trying times.

“The London Sessions”, her thirteenth studio recording was released last week while the world was in turmoil. The record features collaborations with some of Britain’s most exciting new songwriters and the pop/house production team Disclosure. It is a breathtaking return to form for the diva after a recent period of mixed commercial results. Her churchy, street and soulful vocals are surrounded by Disclosure’s rich layered synth work that simultaneously accomplishes the retro feel of late eighties and early nineties club music, and infuses the songs with enough melodic and lyric content to elevate the project to the level of worldwide smash contender.

Of special note: The gospel/doo wop direction of “Therapy”, the introspective modern day blues, “Whole Damn Year”, a look at domestic abuse, the standout dance track Follow”, “Right Now” and “Long Hard Look”.

If you didn’t know before now; Charles Barkley didn’t just become ignorant, Chris Rock did not just become insightful, The New York Post did not just become racist, cops have literally been getting away with murder and Mary J. Blige has been dope since day one.

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For Diddy

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MIKE NICHOLS ON THE SET OF THE GRADUATE

The 30th of October, 2001 was memorable. It was a crisp fall evening and the opening night of the NBA basketball season. Michael Jordan had come out of retirement one last time and donned the uniform of the Washington Wizards. He’d been granted an equity stake in the team, and had gotten that itch to lace ‘me up again. Coincidentally, the old Knick killer was scheduled to make his season debut at Madison Square Garden against a Knicks team that was in decline. I was a newly installed Executive Vice President of a fresh start-up record company that was based in LA, and I was traveling back and forth between both coasts while trying to sign artists and establish a New York office. I got a pair of tickets for the game and a date.

New York was still on it’s heels after having taken a devastating combo on the chin when both World Trade Center towers were destroyed on 9/11. National Guardsmen were patrolling the streets and paranoia filled the air. Buildings that you could previously walk through in order to take a shortcut were closed. Metal detectors were everywhere, and anyone with a Middle Eastern appearance was mistrusted on sight. Racist propaganda was spouted from every possible source, and patriotism was the thing that made it okay. The Bush administration was preparing to take advantage of the patriotic fervor by invading two countries that we still haven’t fully gotten out of, and by directing then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to use the moment to empower all intelligence services to begin to monitor civilian communication by phone, and the web – they called it the Patriot Act. We were badly in need of an evening’s entertainment.

This particular night, the game was being played in the stands. Jordan brought the A-list out and seated next to me was SNL’s Darrell Hammond, and his date, Lorraine Bracco of the Sopranos. My seats were cool – right on the aisle of the first row behind the fold-ups on the Eighth Avenue baseline. We were in the corner nearest the Knicks bench. The networking thing was in full effect. My date was a leggy Italian attorney with a great smile and gorgeous eyes. I’d given her the seat on the aisle and she was being chatted up by one of the City’s great power couples, Good Morning America anchorwoman, Diane Sawyer and her husband, the great film, and theater director, Mike Nichols. Lovely people. It was an honor to spend an evening in their company.

Of course, at that point, I had already been a Nichols fan for nearly 35 years after seeing his satirical groundbreaking masterwork “The Graduate” as a child. And since then, I’ve seen it many, many times more, along with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Working Girl, Silkwood, The Birdcage, Postcards From The Edge, Wolf, Heartburn and his unforgettable contemplation on morality, fidelity and the Internet, Closer.

Earlier today, news came to us that Nichols died of a heart attack. I do remember that the Knicks beat the Wizards that night, but I most remember meeting one of the greatest directors that America has produced. I am grateful to have lived during the era that formed him. R.I.P. Mike Nichols, you did your thing.

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For Sylvia

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