#TRENDSETTER: ZEL, 21, NEW JERSEY

#TRENDSETTER, Articles, Culture, Fashion, Fiction

Steven “Zel” Vasquez, 21; Graphic Designer, Cover Artist, Fashion Blogger

IG: Sayitaintzel

Inqueries: Byzelclo@gmail.com

“It’s BYZEL”

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Black Culture is about intersection, and Zel’s art is no different. Crossing the decadent fashion of rap culture with digital graphics, Zel is forming a career by making the unexpected a statement. While most would think a digital artist focuses less on physical presentation, they will be surprised to find Zel pays as much attention to what he is wearing, and how he feels with it as he does to the tools of his trade — a sentiment someone like me, who feels aesthetic conveys as much as a written word, agrees with.

Zel’s Inspirations could come from the very artists he designs his concepts for: such as the subtle festive street looks of ASAP Rocky, or the maddening lost outlook of Kanye West. There is an approach to his graphics and designs that always feels familiar, yet vibrant and distinct like a splash of color on a monotone backdrop.

 

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Even though he attends school far out in the boondocks of Hackettstown, New Jersey, he where style takes a backdrop to the salt-pillar lifestyle surrounding the college, he still maintains he isn’t simply Steven Vasquez — but the artist who creates: Zel. He appreciates the power of attention and detail on a t-shirt, in footwear and on a Mac book screen.

Whether it is a custom fit, or a digital concept for his favorite artist’s albums, Zel maintains a bold, elegant and sharpness. His art continues the trend of true Black Boy Joy.

For graphics and designs, well, BYZEL, reach the artist at byzelco@gmail.com or at his IG: Sayitaintzel.

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Black Panther Shows Out in Entertainment Weekly

Articles, Culture

By: Steven Underwood
Today, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY released the promotional pictures for Black Panther, debuting during 2018’s Black History Month. And from the images (found below) we have nothing but great things to expect from this well cast, expectantly well acted, well designed celebration of Afrocentricism.

Last year, I wrote on the importance of Black Panther for COMICSVERSE, an article found here.

#BlaqueTwitter: June 26th 2017, THE BET EDITION

Articles, Culture

Photo Courtesy of Hypebeast

By: STEVEN UNDERWOOD

SPOTLIGHT

JOE BUDDEN ruins another peaceful interview with another rising talent in Hip Hop, TAKEOFF of MIGOS*. At the BET Awards last night, JOE BUDDEN interviewed the Versace-décor’d trio along with DJ Akademiks and [whatever that girl name was] for the EVERYDAY STRUGGLE podcast. DJ Akademiks started the interview confusingly antagonizing TAKEOFF in a scene that felt reminiscent of a Chappelle Skit (WHAT?!). JOE BUDDEN, being allergic to successful black rappers younger than himself, immediately start barking like the pitbull he looks just like. Little did Budden know, MIGOS are always ready to square up like they’re rooted.

Follow the Birdie for the Tweet!

Summary, the situation escalated into a fight, because MIGOS obviously had the power advantage. No one turned for confirmation in the trio. QUAVO stood, OFFSET stood, TAKEOFF didn’t even break his gaze, just eased on out of his seat, didn’t even stop to take off the very expensive jewelery around his neck. I didn’t know OFFSET was still a gentleman. Homie just got to rolling up his sleeves. And way to go TAKEOFF, the underdog is always ready to bark. Never doubt MIGOS is the next incarnation of the Three Muskateers: Blouses and all. Budden took the L in this situation, he’s just looking sad. Almost as Sad as DJ Akademic shoving a girl in-between himself and the situation. The next day, JOE BUDDEN took to Twitter, saying something about not liking MIGOS attitude. But, when you not only a fashion Icon, immune to the consequences of rampant homophobia, and the hottest rap group out, you can afford to have an attitude. To this situation, I refer to the Crissles philosophy: “Ain’t Yall too rich for this stuff? Don’t yall got a yacht to buy?” Joey, go host your podcast and stay silent. We get it, you’re talented and mad you get no respect. It ain’t our fault, it’s your own. Chalk it up to the game and go home. *TAKEOFF, QUAVO and OFFSET are all members of MIGOS. No, MIGOS is not one person. Pay attention to American culture.

Lesser News

MIGOS also fought CHRIS BROWN, but this is like a normal Sunday evening for CHRIS BROWN. I won’t be satisfied until either he gets folded like the lawn chair he looks like, or he ends up in prison. There’s girls won’t let him go broke. Homie gonna be 16 to them until he 80 in a retirement home threatening to fight his nurses and getting into dance battles with his own reflection.

Follow the Birdie for the Tweet!

TREY SONGZ had another mediocre performance. The TL is still confused about why he still making music about all the sex he has, and still somehow makes the same song over and over. I just want someone to break his heart, or for him to have some character development. He needs to have his LEMONADE by Beyonce (this is the only accurate way to refer to THE album). I want to like his music like I liked LAST TIME, YOUR SIDE OF THE BED, and BOTTOMS UP, but he just…doesn’t give me a reason to? Maybe he can make an album about his dog, the true talent in his family.

SOLANGE, the Moon Goddess, won the Centric Award last night. Some people got made she thanked the Universe and not God. Some people also aren’t aware that not all Black People are Christian or Religious. She made the bop for Depression, which most church folk think is just an imaginary illness you can pray away without actual therapy or medication or actual, I don’t know, acknowledgement. So boo.

REMY MA, stole an award. Let’s not dwell on her speech – which she made about a feud and not about her own development, growth, abilities, appreciation, etc. The TL didn’t say NICKI MINAJ should’ve won the award (they screamed it from the rooftops), but REMY MA certainly didn’t do everything all the Runner-ups did to possibly win over her. MISSY ELLIOT has put in so much work this year that she has certainly earned that win. CARDI B has actually shook the pedestal that Nicki Minaj twirls 5 inches of Indian hair on. YOUNG M.A. has brought a dynamic flow to the game. All of them have done more thank REMY MA and her need to tear down other female rappers. REMY MA is just Joe Budden with two X-Chromosomes and a ghost writer (Guess you needed a, PAP). It’s a shame, because I really WANT to like her. She a Potterhead, she a carefree black girl, she’s rude. All things I love in people.

SZA was a carefree black girl on stage living her dream, and we loved her for it. KEYSHIA COLE stayed for the celebration of what is apparently her favorite album about her life and then left. We love this girl and her crown of curls she turns into this magical prop. Honestly, SZA is Rapunzel and I love her.

People still thing CHANCE THE RAPPER is a new artist, and he isn’t. But I think the qualification for this award just means you were recently signed. Which means one year Chance will one day receive the Lifetime Achievement Award along with his Best New Artist award, because he ain’t -ever- gonna sign.

BIG SEAN continues to be the example all Rappers should follow. Fashionista, Philanthropist, Poet, Artist, Professional Own-Business-Minder, Good Boyfriend. BIG SEAN, keep laying down the blue print.

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LUKE JAMES tried to steal everyone girlfriend on stage in front of the most violent men in Hip Hop and got away with it. NEW EDITION also performed with the -entire- cast of their Biopic. That stage was all white blazers and Motown choreography. I enjoyed what I could see of it (I couldn’t tell who was who, at all. They could’ve been lipsynching for all I know).  

#BlueBoys: The Inspirational Sadness of Demetrius Harmon

Articles, Culture

By Steven Underwood

Let’s be clear, Demetrius Harmon, Black Viner Meechonmars turned rising comedic actor, isn’t inspiring because he’s sad — an understatement for what Depression really is. His struggle with mental illness has been a brutally honest battle to watch – especially considering my own struggles with the dark underbelly on depression. Rather, Meech is inspiring because of the moments outside of his sadness.

Demetrius Harmon began his career several years back during Vine’s primetime as a promising comedian. Primarily, Meech trafficked in some of the most creative skits to hit the site, yet when largely underappreciated (especially when compared with other major accounts of a lighter complexion, and weaker content). When Meech turned his attentions to Youtube and Instagram, it appeared a welcome change. Now, in 2017, Vine is as dead as Black Nationality in America. While some Viners dedicate portions of their careers to outing other black celebrities’ sexualities and hosting gigs, Meech has done something that felt is as sorrowful as it is beautiful: advocacy.

Meech struggles with many monsters. Beasts known as anxiety, depression and suicide, as evidenced in his 2016 short, BE HAPPY. The short was a speculative story of Demetrius’s journey to reconnect with his old friend, Happiness (Caleon Fox), while he is constantly hounded by the ever-present dangers of Depression (Victor Pope Jr.), Anxiety (Caleb City), and the apathetic misunderstanding of his father (Nathan Zed). In the short’s epilogue, Meech discusses a particular tweet where he talked about killing himself, and his decision not to do so, and while one may confuse this confession as an end-all cleansing of mental illness – it was only the start.
Speculative fiction isn’t new to the art scene. All artists draw on some kind of pain to shape their craft. Yet, Meech goes above and beyond to invite his fans to connect with him and his own. As a poet, he writes about the icy coldness that Depression brings and the dangers he faces when neglected by those around him. A realism that becomes that much more substantial when Meech shifts his shape from loss to laughter as a Youtuber. Much of his real life portrayals of himself reflects his own creation, BE HAPPY: Art imitating life is an understatement.

He is a Blue Boy, like me. A child cursed with something that submerges you in the secret terrors of the mind — washes you away from love and suspends you miles away from the happiness which drives a person to make it to the next day. You have no choice but to fight it until you can’t anymore. Blue Boys don’t get over it, Blue Boys can’t wait it out. Blue Boys just have to express it and damn the rules set up by people not like us. We express it, and bury it for just another minute, where we can be joyful and open and free — with the energy of life incarnate nestled in our cheeks — until the next moment of descension. We have to be so many things at once, and be these many things pretty well. A Blue Boy is a warrior with a shining smile fighting darker demons: gladiators of whole made happiness harvested from mildewed sad.

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Likewise, his fans see Meech in this multifaceted point of view: from sadness to happiness, slipping between the obstacles. From tearful reflections on isolation and misery to a quick and soul-blazing dancebreak to anything in a Childish Gambino catalogue. Speaking as someone with depression that gets so dark that it becomes a struggle to bath, to get up, to even look another human being in the eye, it reminds a youthful artist that this sadness is temporary. That there is beauty in the triumph of tomorrow.

But to see Meech on the average and know that my own depression isn’t just limited to my own mortal shell, it gives a wizening glow to him. Sometimes, it is hard to even remember I’ve got a good two years on the young man; especially when you look into his eyes sometimes and see that same haunting sadness lingering there. The Inspiration comes every time he posts, and every time he speaks of his ambitions that are coming tomorrow. There is nothing glorious about Depression, though many artists swear by it as a muse for talent. There is everything glorious about perseverance, which this young black man has in mountains.

Meech, your fight never falls on deaf ears, and you are valued.

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Demetrius “Meech” Harmon is a Detroit, Michigan native transplanted to Los Angeles. can be found on Instagram and Twitter @Meechonmars and on Youtube at Demetrius Harmon. Follow him for some of the finest content of this generation.

#WHYWEMAD: #BLACKBOYJOY and Keith Powers’ Bi Erasure

Articles, Culture

By: Steven Underwood

Okay, first off: Bisexual Boys exist. I’m not sure why that’s such a hard concept. Why it’s a complexity, you know, because sexuality is a spectrum: people shift and shape across it through their lives and some people identify with this flexibility and choose to allow themselves the freedom to bend through it.

Yesterday, the timeline was met with Keith Powers’ recent interviews with HOLLYWOOD UNLOCKED. In the interview, the NEW EDITION actor discussed the rumors of his sexuality. Set to clear the air of his apparent heterosexuality, he proceeded to drag bisexual men everywhere down the drain and drown them.

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The moment it happened, Bi-Twitter released a collective aggravated sigh of despair. Attacks on Polysexual identities isn’t new, Bisexuals have suffered from ruthless disparaging comments from homophobic, ally and LGBTQA communities for various reasons. This has occurred so much that sociological groups have coined terms like “biphobia” and “bisexual erasure” to explain the phenomena of othering this specific group of Queer identities.

So, most Bisexuals knew what was coming next. Within the hour, the timeline was flooded with people – gay and straight – slamming Bisexuals into the mud. Gays declaring that people can “only be gay or straight, no in-between,” straights declaring “any nigga who sleeps with a guy is gay. There’s no in-between.” The attacks came just a few days following a specific conversation on whether or not closeted gays should use the Bisexual identity as a stepping stone to coming out: using it to “soften” the blow of the coming out process. Fairly, many bisexuals viewed this as aggressive, because it invalidated the identity which already suffers disapproval from the LGBTQA Community.

That’s an issue for another day, however, because to explain to the LGBTQA why bisexuals are being octstravized, you need to explain to Queer identities that sexuality doesn’t make you immune to bigoted behavior. (See Also: White Gays and Racism/Transphobia).

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Today, we’re discussing why Keith Power’s behavior is shocking. Anyone who follows Keith Powers understands that he is a rep of the #BLACKBOYJOY movement, a trend of allowing Black boys the right of expression and freedom. Black men have barred from being free and expected to fit into a stagnant box of expectations.

Much like footballer and all-around clown, Odell Beckham Jr, this has caused Keith Powers to suffer some ridicule for his sexuality – despite their very apparent and long rap sheet of female sexual conquest. (Keith Powers has even taken to Snapchat to check the men on his Instagram coming at him because their girlfriends are In his comments). Instead of being like OBJ, who just swerves past the comments in a defiant act of self-security, Keith Powers is always “clearing the air.” This time, it ended in comments that damaged a movement he seems to dedicate his career to – and his social media.

What the FAKING IT actor doesn’t understand is that you cannot be all around about #BlackBoyJoy and #CarefreeBlackBoys without allowing Black boys to be sexually multifaceted. Black men today are not allowed to sexually explore without being labeled or criticized. Whether it is with a man or a woman, black men are always subjected to limiting stereotypes that forces us down. Even the idea that it is “Different for women” is supported by a misogynistic standard that women sexually perform at all times for the consumption of men – rather than an expression of individual identity. A double standard of limits, checks and oppressive chains.

If we are going to be all about #BlackBoyJoy, and I do want us to be, this must come with loving every boy who chooses to express their multifaceted personality. That includes not deeming gay black men as weaker by sexual categorization; that includes not deeming “feminine” black men as gay because of their aesthetic; that includes not barring black men from specific careers, goals and artforms because that would deem that on this outlier of the “Hard Black man” trope; and that certainly includes allowing black men to reject heteronormativity and embracing sexual fluidity at their own will and loving all of them NOT in spite of this, but because of this.
Keith Powers, there was a bar set for you that wasn’t met. I know you apologized, but apologies only go so far as they’re put into action. I’m very much against Cancel culture and Woke activist who use it as a punishment for those who just didn’t know better, but you do need to understand that there is now a watch on you to meet the standards of the Black Platform you stand on.

#TRENDSETTER: Brandon Watters, Columbus, OH

#TRENDSETTER, Articles, Culture, Non-Fiction

Brandon Watters, 22, Columbus, OH; Fashion and Acting

IG: Brandoooonnn

Twitter: @NoOtherName_ 

Inspirations: Jaden Smith, ASAP Rocky, Frank Ocean, Mace Windu, Deadpool

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By: Steven Underwood

Brandon Watters collects DVDs: rows of them, and he watches them in the mostly remodeled basement of his family house in one of the more suburban neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio.  When we were younger, it was like a cold prison: four dense white walls of cinder with too few power outlets and an itchy carpet that we turned into a teenage paradise.

Even then, that room had more DVDs than necessary. Some were his father’s, a large, stern black man with a pair of ever watching eyes. But most of those DVDs belonged to Brandon. His most prized and prestigious collection of every movie you wouldn’t realize to think of from action-adventure to obscure heart-wrenching dramas.

And if you ask Brandon why he collects these DVDs, he will shrug at you: “Bruh, this is art.”

Brandon and I have been cool since the day he walked onto my bus with a semi-tall curly afro and a green sweater. He was easily impressionable, and did a lot to hide the talents he thought people didn’t: it was basketball, or nothing.  At the time, I don’t know what made me choose him, but I did and since that day I’ve been defensive and protective of the man I knew he could become.

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Post-fashion show, Watters chills in a turtle neck and chain complete with a furry staple.

Now, he wears face-length dreads, leather jackets and buys his pants from the female section of unisex clothing stores. He loves to thrift shop and, soaking wet, he maybe weighs the combined weight of all three dogs he’s lost. And, just like me, and many members of the Columbus Underground of Artistry, he is an artist whose sensitive about his shit.

“I kinda just express the moment.” He says when describing his art form. “I don’t wanna say how I feel, so I express what I feel in that situation. Like if it’s raining, my outfit will reflect it. I embody that time. Even when I’m taking pictures, I think about something someone said about me and that will be my caption. It will be my response. Something I will say in a certain moment”

Brandon is naturally anti-social despite the charismatic image he adopts like an armor to protect himself. It makes him seem more radiant than he is, and somehow it’s this armor that causes people to float towards him at their own peril. Vanishing over the course of a week or a month isn’t anything foreign for him, no matter who is looking for him. During his Caspar days, he’s shoulder deep in a project he wants to perfect. Other times, he is just in that same basement as our teen years, isolated in that basement with his DVDs.

But this need to isolate himself is something that has caused much friction between him and others whom he deems to love. My own personal friends have asked me personally why are we friends. “The way you talk about him, i’ve always expected that nigga to be this suave, charismatic, awesome nigga who glows,” said my own friend, Jan. “I kept expecting some fine cross between Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba and Trevante Rhodes with the way you painted him.”

Other less blunt people have just rolled their eyes when he and I were in the same room and just bluntly ask: “Yo, why are you two friends?”

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Watters upstairs from the infamous basement.

To both of these kinds of people, I have no idea what to say afterwards (especially to the former, because the implications is always that I’m not “worthy” to even associate with him). Both perspectives are valid, though, we’re so dissimilar on the surface: maybe it’s something that I just see in him that he conveys via his Art?

After all, it isn’t necessarily that we have a lot in common: he’s athletic, and I’m not. I express love in the most open and warming ways, and he doesn’t. He tries to maintain this image of himself with a certain kind of power, and I do what I want, when I want in a devil-may-care attitude, while veiling my own real power behind a carefully tapered cloak. I was raised to be a loving brother-in-arms, and he has been raised to be in solitude.

How we see each other, and why I’ve strived to make a friendship last the trials of post-graduation and three states in distance…It’s always been something that you would have to grow up with us to understand.

The twenty-two-year-old, like me, is a proud Franklin Heights Alum. Heights is a high school set in Southwest Columbus between the shiny suburban neighborhoods and what is widely considered the ghetto of the city. It was there we learned the imperative of hard work through shitty lunches, and a year without sports or extracurricular activities. We watched kids fight one another just to have something worth fighting for; talk loudly just to remind everyone that they had a void and thought within the now because the pain of now was the only thing present.

It was a place of hard knuckles, hard hearts and harder heads; where you needed fangs and claws and a sharp tongue to remain on top of your own life and not be crushed by your environment. An experience like that is life-bonding, and that helped us both make it out.

If you ask us now, we don’t know what made us different than the others who were swallowed by the city we both loved. The place we claim as our artistic homelands.

We suspect it was because we had people – and by we, I mean I: I know those days despite anything that happened, we knew we had each other – Brandon, I, and our friends; we had a way of inspiring each other to express who we were. We did it through performance mostly (even I dabbled in dance for two years), but others took mild inspirations where they could find it and applied it to something secret and theirs. Yet, no matter what, it always expressed the cacophony of characters we had at Heights. At the time, we – everyone, Brandon included –thought the interest that struck Brandon was his athletics as a varsity point guard.

Brandon was a Baller. His father created the mold that he would fill that was exactly that. Everyday after school, dribbling up and down the asphalt drive way, practicing the right way to dunk, to pass, to make the J from middle court. He practiced in the rain; the sun; in fog. Brandon was a Point guard and that was it. He was an Academic, sometimes. But that was it, Brandon’s hobbies revolved around a spotted, orange ball and a netted hoop a foot in diameter.

Sophomore Year of High School, Brandon Watters was cut from the Basketball team.

“I realized I wasn’t going to the NBA at a very young age. I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. And I lowkey wasn’t trying to push it, but everyone kept trying to push me. I got cut, though. That was the biggest reality check. I mean I was a weird kid, I’ve been drawing since the age of one, I’ve been watching weird shit since age one.”

Weirdness is something that captivated Brandon for a long time. One of the many things Brandon veils behind his armor is a love for the alternative interests commonly refered to as Nerd Culture. There were days in our youth when I would wake up from the middle of sleep to find him looking through my own ULTIMATE X-MEN issues. He never mentioned he was reading them out loud to me, ever. It became a secret that he never knew I knew until I brought it up to him one day.

When the first and pivotal AVENGERS movie debuted, we all went in one large group and watched the movie through the end credits and Brandon personally pretended that he didn’t know who Thanos was. When I asked him why, he tried to laugh in an involuntary sigh of charisma. “I ain’t want to seem like a nerd.”

His Netflix account has a lot of provocative shit: BEETLEBORG marathons, a soiree with the season-long series, PUSH, and even the hit DC TV show, YOUNG JUSTICE. He is just a bit more open about what he loves now. Yet, there still seems to be that involuntary distancing between Fashion Brandon and Nerd Brandon, as if both could never live together in unity within his being — because, you know, black men are never allowed to be multi-faceted.

“I especially love YOUNG JUSTICE. Anytime I need some inspiration, I sit down and watch some old episodes over again. Especially the dark episodes.” He said “Knowing I wouldn’t go far in sports took me a far place. I want to be what I want to be. Art is something I really enjoy watching.”

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A turtle neck is always a signature look.

Brandon dabbles in a bit of everything for his Art. For a time, his Art was acting. Brandon took several acting classes and submerged himself in the lore of the craft. He went to many Theater shows just for the hell of it: to see actual actors at work, forming expressions and formulating their dialogue. “I was going to a theater show. I love watching it because they’re artists. They’re artists, but they’re acting in real time. You will never see that play again. You can see the plot again, but this performance? Never again.“

During NYFW 2017, Brandon had the courtesy of walking for a few fashion designers after meeting with them in Cincinnati. He was one of a handful of Columbus artists to appear during any of the shows that week. For the first time in a while, Heights students were pounding the pavement throughout the Gotham city.

Though I never told him, I was very proud of his accomplishment. Brandon, as a person, is known uniformly by his nearly open charisma and shining smile. He laughs off pain and shrugs it down as if that careless motion could send years of darkness cascading off like small black raindrops off a raincoat. A certain kind of person will look at him and think they can know him in totality: as a Fashionista, as an Asshole, as an Anti-Altruist, as a Player who deflects love of any kind. The more observant person will notice something softer beneath the surface that craves the need to express itself at any stakes and at any cost. I see an amalgamation of many things: some of which is positive, some of which is negative and recognize that complexity of him as a person. I embrace that he is, in-fact, a multifaceted black artist.

But when he walked during NYFW, as a Columbus’s one true son, and as someone I’ve personally see grow large enough to survive in both the dark of day and the light of night, I was proud to say that I was right about this young artist from my city.

I was right the day I saw his curly afro on the bus when I thought he was going to shine and everyone had to be there to see it. Even if he’d have to shine without me.

Love with Hip-Hop

Art, Non-Fiction, Poetry

Hip-hop has the humanizing effect: it exists without gender, a body but is very definite and powerful human force. This is a poem regarding how I fell in love with hip-hop and all of its facets.

By Steven Underwood

The concrete jungle gave birth to the love of my life;

We met in my mama’s womb, I loved her on Monday mornings over the radio to the smell of fried potatoes and grits.

She be fickle, like the ether pounding her stereo speakers;

A chaotic rhythm: a smooth beat; the Deejay and the word-smith in her soul;

They explode together: unhinged.

She be quick-witted, the soles of her reeboks and Adidas changing course

And destination faster than anticipated.

I call her Hip, and she is the rhythm of the streets.

I kiss her, and she tastes like mid, tear drops, welfare cheese and too many broken promises.

Her voice sounds like the first crescendo of a Saturday night, like the last chime on a Sunday morning.

The concrete jungle gave birth to the love of my life;

We met on long car rides on a Philly Friday night, I loved him in prepubescent rages when rebellion filled my blood and constitution strengthened mine tongue.

He be beautifully savage, so mean when he just needs to be honest;

Sometimes I look him in the eye, and hear the legacy of a people burdened,

perturbed, bountied, bloodied and beaten.

He is my savage dissonance on a silent hill that bare witness to a macabre scenery;

I named him Hop, and he is the cold honesty, my thrilling passion.

He lashes with his tongue.

I kiss him, and he tastes like Hennessey, black-and-milds and too many repressions.

His voice is rough like a broken knuckle on a balled fist, like skin smacking the park mulch.

The concrete jungle gave birth to my best relationship;

We came together at the same time, but love each other different.

With him, I’m gentle, I hold him to my heart in a dark room where our anger can’t escape

Her, I’m rough, our electricity bounces off each block, like the lamp lights which guide us home.

Together, I’s become We’s,

You becomes a crew.

We hunt, love and kiss on the light of midnight;

We talk about what is new in the world,

We cry — we anguish over what is old.

We do our little dance to drums.

We mix these rhythms with something old too, something ancestral.

We like to make music to the conditions that built up our huts in this concrete jungle.

People are jealous of the sounds we make when we love together,

The wet, savage patter of our celebration.

They call us rap, and they are afraid of the primality of our songs.

We kiss, and it smell like how freedom feel; like the heartbreak of being just a friend;

She feel like the hot shower of a Candy Rain; She touches me in shapes of tic-tac-toe: all hugs and kisses. He feels the first steps of liberation; Our hearts collide; Our minds move into one synchronized beat; I twerk, she dabs; we become us — become a family, becoming individuals.

The concrete jungle gave me love.

I Should’ve Talked Black

Articles, Essays, Non-Fiction

First Published Here at Bananago Street:

An analysis on racial discourse in America.

By Steven Underwood

As a kindergartner, I came clamoring home to share with my mother a stark belief: I did not like white people. In my adolescent ignorance, I had forgotten my best friend Dylan, who was not only white, but shared my love of imagined worlds of magical wonder, which I still cling to, and true compassion, which has since brittled with age. My mom took the time to remind me of Dylan, to which I replied: “I don’t like white people, but I like him.” I’ve always felt that this was my first direct confrontation with race. Earlier, just shy of ten years old, I had been called a “Nigger” for the first time in my life. I, essentially, had been beaten with a weapon forged against me to prosper.

Of course, I had experienced racial micro-aggressions in my life. That one time, when I was six, when my mom had been arrested by the police because they said she “looked” like she had stolen her Purple Ford Taurus. This other time, when I was seven, when a boy’s father snatched one of my white classmates away from me on the playground in South Jersey and muttered about nappy hair under his breath. I was expected to be the most coordinated in basketball, the fastest in football, but the dumbest in my Reading and Math classes. Or, when my mother cradled me in her arms for the first time, and decided to change my name from the ethnically unique Alante to the more Eurocentric Steven.

In an unnecessary justification of my childhood assailant, I’d say the boy—that boy– was using words he hadn’t completely understood, as children do. He merely knew that this word was designed with malice, that he could hurt me using it. He’d been taught that he had the privilege to hurt others with this weapon, a belief that was reinforced by my teachers, all of whom were white, because when I neglected to properly defend myself, or my culture, with words or actions he was not chastised or reprimanded. Rather than taking up the duty to correct him, this boy would assume that he could always get away with certain hate speech because something in this world made it okay.

I reflect on this day, with the new adult ignorance I have acquired by a decade of wandering aimlessly through life pretending I know what I am doing, and realize that my mother had taken the opportunity to establish my bigotry as inherently wrong and something that should be punished. She took my words and used them against me to show how my hatred and bigotry could effect not just me in the long run, but those I love. She taught me to be ashamed of my prejudices.

My teacher, however, was trusted by parents and administrators to cater to help raise a child and did not ever do the same. Though this event may seem something so minor that an infraction is not necessary, we must understand that the systems of oppression within the country are in the subconscious, the things that we experience, and beliefs that are reinforced by context and action—or lack thereof. Early on, my teacher was offered a chance to discuss race but fled it and failed both of us.

Throughout those subsequent months, spanning a dozen more collied moon phases, my mother had realized I was developing into a black man. She took the time to set me aside and made it clear to me what that meant. Yes, she disclosed I would have to find my own meaning of blackness (which, I chose to define as passion for who I am and respect for those who sacrificed and built for me to be here today), but there was the customary topics of fears, concerns, and troubles that one of a similar background as mine might expect with this: Steven, in a situation with the police your life comes first, and what’s right comes second; Steven, not all of them have your best interest at heart and will pursue you with despite; and Steven, you will always have to try twice as hard to have half of what they have.

I did not believe her. I always remembered Dylan and the impact he had on my life and that I had equally been bullied by black kids as well as white. In my young life, I had experienced the troubles of blackness in this country and knew very well that there was something strange occurring. It was this same instinctual sense that told the children who was the parental favorite, though mom and dad often said they love you all equally. But, more importantly than the white friends I’ve gained in my classes, I had reasonable doubt to my mother’s feelings regarding race in this country.

My mother’s name is Tamara Fluellen. Even now, almost a whole foot smaller than me, she feels taller than me—roughly five feet of honey skin and beautiful weave taller than me. She was the only black person in Willingboro High School in Willingboro, New Jersey and therefore often faced ridicule by her white classmates– as the other. In one particular event, she told me of the day her male classmates attempted to attack her after school. There was a mob of them, but none of them faced punishment for attacking her. Tamara Fluellen had been a victim of a hate crime and had seen the hideousness of anti-blackness in this country. Someone who experienced this kind of hate, could not possibly speak without bias. Someone who was victim to this kind of pain, could not possible understand the good in others when lost in the cold and dark.

Unfortunately, at every possible turn, my mother was proven right. I recall my father once saying every time my mom was infallibly right about something she said as a moral, a heifer lost its spots. I am still worried about the amount of cows in this country who must be absolutely albino.

Blackness is not as celebrated in this country as it should be, at least not unless it is whitewashed and bastardized. Often, it is Cinderella trapped in the cellar. It is she who maintains the beauty and glory of a household built by her ancestry but doesn’t reap any of the benefits. It survives but does not live. It eats but is not nourished. I often find that I cannot talk about my blackness and how I enjoy or love it without someone chiming in that their whiteness is somehow in contrast or conflict with it. That my pride in who I am and my heritage is an attack on their culture.

In my late teens, I’d already learned that black culture was one of the most vital things in America. It is literally American culture, as American as baseball and the apple pie the slaves cooked. To be American, you are required to enjoy something that has either been influenced by or was directly associated with black culture. Music, art, fashion, all of it had its root in African-American influence but are not ever required to value it or its impact or even favor its people. You can always be white and wear cornrows and box braids, listen to rap music, wear African tribal prints or wear black face, but the same cannot be said for actual black people—who originated this culture. We witness an imbalance in privilege so severe that the privilege makes the other edgy and unique when worn in bastardization and appropriation. Yet, this is still often disregarded as myth. “We are all human, and human culture cannot be appropriated.” Or essentially “Cultural appropriation isn’t real.”

Often, when I say “Black Live Matter,” someone must always chime in with “All Lives Matter” and completely derail an entire conversation that could have been productive. When I enter settings that are designed to embrace black beauty in contrast to white beauty standards propagated for almost 500 years, someone must step in and say “White girls do it better.” They see these attempts for “pro-blackness” and see “anti-whiteness” because privilege dictates that anything that isn’t the normative is an attack—much like how pro-white was always supported by white supremacy.

At a distance, I can still sense the awkward shift of my peers in their skins when a discussion on the topic is started and to that I recall my teacher, in her seat, refusing to acknowledge the child who attacked me in class or those men who attacked my mother, all of who went justified in their bigotry. Worst, I recall my own attempts to undermine my mother’s experiences merely because I felt that her pain blinded her to some assumed truth of the world.

This stigma that pain devalues the argument of oppressed bodies needs to die. We must acknowledge that there is a system of privileges—simple things like knowing your life is valued, that justice is absolutely guaranteed, that you will appear non-threatening enough to avoid death, your opinion is always necessary and that anywhere you go you will be free of racial prosecution or othered– set up in this country and anyone who is a victim of it is not a credible advocate for change is harmful to growth. We judge that because they cannot be entirely logical in a situation that they are wrong. As if logical arguments have led to a safer, more pleasant world.

Some of the most valid changes in history have been established not on logic but on emotion. Slavery, in some lights, was in fact the most logical method of exploitation to develop America into a superpower in just under 200 years. However, the most sensible argument provided against it was based on emotion. “These people may look different, but they are human and they experience pain. Abusing them, and harming them, in these ways are wrong both religiously and philosophically”. So, why is it that we feel that we can disregard the pain of black bodies as a reasonable argument to openly acknowledge racial privilege and systems of oppression in this country especially in a discussion on social and societal reform based on race?

Members of the black community have a lot of things to say about this. In the safety of homes, churches, and barbershops—safe zones– we’ve accumulated a number of arguments regarding why we are disbelieved. One theory is that at the end of the day we still seem different on some base-level. So we’ve had those niches of African-Americans who changed themselves to appear more white appealing—non-black spouses for mixed raced children, shunning “black” music, art and culture to appeal to whiter worlds– but they still aren’t believed. Some suggest it has something to do with respectability politics. They think maybe, if they look credible that they will be believed. They peacock in their suits, ties, and clean shaven haircuts cleaned of black curls and naps. They aren’t believed either. Some look to logos for their arguments, and dig deep into calm, calculated answers with strong evidence. They definitely aren’t believed and are in fact often shunned as “preachy”.

An impasse has developed along with an answer: because white privilege in itself describes a system of privileges that is experienced on a micro and macro-level it becomes harder to empathize. When another person has to come up with convoluted analogies about how blackness is experienced in this country and how whiteness benefits, it only further justifies the existence of that said thing.

When someone says it hurt like a wound, you are able to sympathize to an experience of pain you’ve have earlier in your life. When someone says they were hurt by the death of a loved one, everyone understands this profound sense of loss. When someone experiences heartbreak, it is one of the easiest intangible emotions to recall mentally. On the other hand, when I say that I was hurt by being called a Nigger, a Coon, a Thug, or how cultural appropriation affects me emotionally and spiritually, I am forced to paint a picture to justify my emotions and forcefully invoke empathy. I am then also forced to access my credibility on this, and then I am challenged logically. I have to work twice as hard to access a basic human empathy that says believe that I am in pain, and know that you have the ability to end it with just your actions.

A discussion is necessary for many of these stigmas and problems to be adjusted. Systematic Oppression and White Privilege were all built and subsequently woven into the state of imperialized countries with the understanding that it is subconscious and silent yet still obvious. I can’t help but think about what would have happened if my teacher had told that childhood enemy of mine that using those words were wrong and how it would have affected him. In many ways, it justified my blossoming perspective of blackness in this country. There might actually be more cows with spots in this world, if people were willing to discuss race openly—and respectfully to those who are at risk—and consider the idea that maybe they are at an unfair advantage.