Tobe Nwigwe Opens for the Houston Dynamo

Music

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Photos by Michael D. Bishop @shotbybishop_

On a muggy and drizzling Wednesday afternoon, Tobe Nwigwe and LaNell Grant (Nell) took over the Bud Light Beer Garden stage outside of BBVA Compass Stadium to kick off ceremonies for the 2018 US Open Cup Final. The rising star from Southwest Alief performed a short set list for the Houston Dynamo moments before their 2-0 win against the Philadelphia Union.

The duo performed tracks from their viral Get Twisted Sundays project, as well as selections from Tobe’s debut album, Tobe From the SWAT. The rain didn’t stop the couple hundred gathered fans from enjoying a free show from the artist who just last month performed at White Oak to a sold out crowd of over 1,200.

Tobe, his wife Fat, and producer Nell, performed hits from their weekly video project, The Originals; closing the show with arguably their most popular single to date — the Erykah Badu / Dave Chappelle tribute song, “I’m Dope”.

Nwigwe is preparing to launch a US tour next year that could reach up to thirty cities. The Alief football player turned rapper has been making waves in the hip hop game all summer coming off the success of his epic appearance on Sway in the Morning. Tobe’s freestyle on Sway has garnered over 150,000 YouTube views and launched the local phenom to national status as a breakout artist.

Following the appearance on Sway, Tobe and team had a whirlwind summer that included a guest appearance on The Right Time with Bomani Jones, an invitation to tour the BET facilities, and a performance on the BET awards this past June.

Despite their rapid success and obvious marketability, Tobe and his team remain firmly independent, building an organic platform from which to distribute their highly original brand of content. Underneath the team’s breakout hip hop achievements, Nwigwe’s message remains one of purpose and faith, one that he prefers to deliver unfiltered and authentically.

“The H” Podcast is a Celebration of Houston’s Unique Identity

Entertainment

“I choose to believe that every person has a story worth telling, and worth telling beautifully.” Luke Brawner

Luke Brawner started podcasting in 2015 with two faith based programs, Sons and Doubters and Hymnistry. The DFW native who once envisioned ministry as his life calling had no idea, then, that podcasting would soon become the most important part of his life.

That same year, Luke started (in an unofficial capacity) his network, Milieu Media Group. The official company was formed in 2017, and today produces 8 podcasts with 4 more in development.

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Luke Brawner – Host of The H Podcast

Of its 8 currently running shows, none has garnered more local traction than longform interview show, The HThe show is a story telling concept that focuses on individuals, both famous and ordinary, who make Houston the diverse, unique, and talent-rich metropolis that it is.

The goal of The H is twofold. As Brawner puts it, “storytelling has the potential to change the world. Done well, we can affirm the humanity of others and truly feel connected to one another.” While spotlighting the unique and diverse personalities that make Houston great is the show’s immediate mission, Brawner’s broader initiative is to present, through storytelling, universal human truths; to provoke some level of common understanding between his guests and his listeners.

Guests from the show’s 1st and 2nd seasons have included George Foreman IV (son of the legendary boxer), Houston Chronicle sports reporter Hunter Atkins, local Scotch Whisky expert Elyse Blechman, and Vietnam War surgeon Dr. Sam Axelrad, among dozens of others.

Integral to the success of the show is the incredible diversity of its guests. Something done very much intentionally as a reflection of the city itself. The H is a show that hopes to present a genuine contemporary view of Houston and it’s unmatched ethnic, racial, sexual, and political diversity.

The show is set to enter it’s third, and most ambitious season yet, in early October. Brawner will be introducing a roster of more well known guests — including Houston sports personalities, musicians, and politicians — but will also remain committed to his goal of spotlighting ordinary Houstonians with their own beautiful stories to tell.

The third season will also include more segments and bonus episodes, and will introduce a dedicated The H blog (featuring input from a certain handsome boy who’s blog you’re already reading). The additional content will serve to further cover the show’s third season guests as well as to provide independent content and stories not featured in the podcast.

In addition to The H‘s goal of elevating Houstonians by providing a platform for their stories, Milieu Media Group hopes to provide a platform for the city in general. Particularly in the relatively nascent podcast industry.

“I see no reason why we shouldn’t have the same reputation as cities like Chicago, NY and LA creatively. Especially in the podcast space,” says Brawner, who hopes The H and his Milieu network can play a prominent role in making that goal a reality.

BuddieRoe Drops New Single, “Wake Up”

Music

“This is for that kid up in the Tre that didn’t get to live. I could have been that victim too if God ain’t seen it fit.”

“Wake Up” by: BuddieRoe

Coming off his breakout 2017 project, SunRise Over Briargate, Mo-City rapper, BuddieRoe, just released the first single off of his follow up project, ROE. The track, “Wake Up”, dropped on all streaming platforms today and sets a promising tone for the young artist’s sophomore album.

2017 was a breakout year for the impressive lyricist who came seemingly out of nowhere with his debut single, “Southside Basquiat”. He later followed up on that success with a big win at the HTownRapBattle, the release of SunRise Over Briargate, and a slew of features — including a verse on “Motorsport Freestyle” with Doughbeezy and Slim Thug.

With “Southside Basquiat”, Roe broke into the scene as Houston’s newest lyrical savant. The track, as well as its accompanying visuals, are shining examples of Houston’s DIY hip hop industry. This is a city where independent artists create studio quality projects, where mumble rap is not welcome and no one is quick to claim the title of soundcloud rapper. Houston respects bars and talent, and BuddieRoe brings both in abundance.

Expectations have been high for the self-titled Southside Basquiat following the creative success of his first release. Fans expect his follow up solo project to surpass the quality of his first if Roe is to take the next leap forward in his career.

Though he’s remained largely off the radar up to this point in the year, his absence has been no hiatus. Roe has been putting in the studio hours all summer working on multiple upcoming projects.

Produced by David Ruiz, “Wake Up” is yet another conscious banger from the Mo-City native with Third Ward roots. Inspired by the death of Tristian Hutchins, the 8 year old boy killed in a south Houston drive-by earlier this year, Roe describes the frustrations of police profiling and the trappings of a dangerous and violent city.

If “Wake Up” is any indicator of what the full ROE project will sound like, BuddieRoe can expect his star to continue rising in the Texas rap scene, potentially even breaking out nationally within a year or two.

Beyond ROE, the Southside Basquiat is also working on an EP with talented local producer, Pugtunes, and has been busy writing on Breona Micoles’ latest project.

He’s confident that he will be bringing his music to the stage in the near future, so fans should stay tuned to his social media for updates on any upcoming performances as well as new releases.

Listen to BuddieRoe on Spotify

Follow BuddieRoe on Instagram

As a Latino, F**k Kanye West

Politics

Last week Kanye West released his latest solo album (if we can call if that), Ye, on all streaming platforms. This past Friday he dropped his second project in as many weeks; a co-album called Kids See Ghosts with fellow G.O.O.D Music artist, Kid Cudi. Just like that, with 2 albums, 15 tracks, and zero apologies, everyone forgot.

Everyone forgot that less than two months ago Kanye stepped out in public wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat signed by Trump, professed his undying love and support for the President, and spewed racially treacherous ignorance on TMZ. Everyone forgot that Kanye has yet to back off of his stance on the President, and has even gone as far as to say he would like Trump to be godfather to his child.

Kanye is an influencer of massive reach, capable of impacting the votes of millions of young, ignorant, or otherwise impressionable fans. Though he once used that platform for the betterment of his community, he now uses it to champion the most racially hostile, corrupt and mentally inept man to ever sit in the oval office. As an angry and concerned American, more importantly as a Latino, I will never forgive that.

I have loved Kanye West for fourteen years, literally half of my life. When I first heard the song “Jesus Walks” I was a good Catholic boy, fourteen years old and in the early stages of my musical development. Kanye shaped my artistic interests, he taught me about music and fashion, what means to be cool, to be original and unapologetic. When Graduation dropped I was sixteen, an angsty high school junior with a car and a few bucks. I drove around listening to that album so much that I ruined the CD.  In college, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy showed me that hip hop was a genre with limitless artistic potential. I still believe MBDTF is the greatest album ever made. Ever.

Needless to say, over the years I have had to turn a blind eye to a number of outrageous “Kanyeisms”. I have defended the man to countless friends and acquaintances, mostly white people with a limited understanding of hip hop as a culture and an even more limited understanding of Kanye’s contributions to that culture. I have long accepted his outbursts and shocking public behavior as the actions of an artistic genius not bound by normal social inhibitions, nor by the judgment of others. His actions were at times questionable, his arrogance legendary, his tact nonexistent. Still, “the old Kanye” was anything but problematic. In fact his earliest public faux pas, the infamous George Bush comment, was made in defiant support of people of color who at the time were suffering the lasting effects of hurricane Katrina and the gross ineffectiveness of FEMA.

So many of Kanye’s past controversies were in fact the result of his outspoken support of people of color. Many of his early rants and outbursts were in response to the issues plaguing the Black community and marginalized communities in general. This truth, above all else, makes his transition to an alt-right icon so unbearable to those fans who have followed and supported his career for over a decade. Those who stood in line for CD’s, tickets, and clothing. Those who memorized entire albums front to back and saved up months for a pair of $900 sneakers. In the context of Donald Trump, it is especially unbearable for Kanye’s long time Latino fans.

Donald Trump is a fucking blowhard. He is offensive and boorish, disrespectful to nearly all human beings outside of WASP American males. His impact on the Latino community, however, has been immeasurably traumatic. Trump’s rhetoric on Latino immigrants is more than rhetoric. It has manifested into real executive action. His impact on the enforcement practices of ICE has been well documented and felt by nearly every Latino-American family in the United States. Ask any Latino you know, odds are they know someone who has been, or is at risk of being deported under the Trump Administration.

Personally, I’m connected to two families torn apart by Trump’s deportation agenda. Long term, gainfully employed tax payers and residents of the United States who are being sent back to a country they have not called home for nearly twenty years. Lives irreproachably damaged by racism and nationalist fear mongering. This is the legacy of Donald Trump. This is the wave of spiteful white racism that has returned to plague American society after decades of dormancy. It is the ideology to which Kanye West has aligned himself. To which all of Kanye’s remaining fans indirectly align themselves when they stream his music and forget what he did.

As much as it pains me to say this, fuck Kanye West. There are some things in this life that are unforgivable. Some wounds that will never heal. The Trump presidency is a stain on the American identity that may never be removed. It has brought to light ideological fractures in our national fabric so deep they will likely never be repaired.

In these times of ideological warfare, when real lives are being burned to the ground in the name of white supremacy and ethnic cleansing, I will not bend in my undying hatred of Donald Trump and the right-wing mechanisms that got him elected. I will not make excuses or exceptions for anyone, not friends, not family, not an artist who has been a meaningful part of my life for nearly fifteen years. I will abide by the words of my literary and cultural elder statesman, Shea Serrano. “Fuck Donald Trump and anyone who stands with him.” Period.

Hip Hop’s Drug Culture is Tone Deaf to the Nation’s Opioid Crisis

Music

Gustav Åhr was 21 years old when he died of a Xanax fueled drug overdose in November of 2017. You may have heard of him by his stage name, Lil Peep. While fast living and a face canvased by tattoos gave Åhr the appearance of being much older, make no mistake that he was a kid; depressed, deeply troubled, and addicted. Lil Peep’s untimely and tragic death is, sadly, far from an isolated incident. His death is the latest in hip hop’s legacy of gone-to-soon talents taken by drug overdoses. In today’s diverse and multi-layered hip hop culture, the prominence of prescription drug abuse is a mainstream aspect of the greater landscape, particularly among the industry’s youngest artists and fans. This aspect of hip hop is especially troubling in light of the nation’s current struggle with prescription opioid addiction.

Hip hop is a massive culture and a global community. Within that community exist various sects and subcultures all adhering to their own unique ethos and aesthetics. From conscious rap to trap music, the hip hop world is as much, if not more varied than any musical genre or sector of popular culture. That said, there exists within all variations of hip hop a cultural reference point to the world of illegal drug use. There is an unbreakable bond between hip hop and drugs. Rap as an art form was born, and largely reflective, of lower income urban communities of color. These are communities that have long battled with drug crises, from crack and heroin to modern day prescriptions pills. Still, the intent of drug references in urban music, dating back to the blues and jazz of the early 20th century, was not to fetishize but to confront. 1980’s hip hop discusses crack sales and the economics of the drug game at length, but artists rarely boasted openly of their own addictions. While the drug fiend played a prominent role in early hip hop lore, it was typically as a cautionary tale or modern-day court jester. NWA’s 1988 track, “Dopeman”, paints Eazy-E’s drug dealing anti-hero as a despicable trickster, slinging deadly product to strung out crack-heads.

In the 1990’s however, the narrative and semi-biographical nature of hip hop evolved into an era of artistic discovery through psychedelic experimentation. Much like rock-n-roll culture of the sixties and seventies, nineties hip hop used drugs as an expressive medium. Perhaps nowhere was this marriage of drugs and music more prominent than in Houston, Texas, where the regional practice of recreational codeine abuse gave way to the creation of chopped and screwed hip hop. Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw, popularized the use of codeine cough syrup mixed with Sprite soda, aka Lean, between the years of 1990-1993*. It was during this time that Davis invented a style of hip hop he coined, chopped and screwed. By slowing existing tracks down to a snail’s pace, then chopping and scratching the vocals, Screw was simulating the psychological effects of a codeine high. He created a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, one that still defines the hip hop landscape of the south, and eventually penetrated into both east and west coast music. In November 2000, seven years after the release of his first studio mix tape, Robert Davis was found dead in his Houston recording studio after suffering an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. Heavy amounts of codeine were found in his system.

Following the death of Screw, codeine’s grip on southern music only tightened, eventually taking the lives of Screw’s friends and collaborators Big Moe and Pimp C. Today, codeine abuse is still prominent, if not compulsive, among hip hop artists in the south. It also enjoys mainstream acceptance into the greater culture. Harlem artist ASAP Rocky raps often about the drug and about Screw’s influence on his life. His wildly popular rap group, ASAP Mob, was co-founded by Rocky’s close friend and business partner ASAP Yams, who died of a drug overdose in 2015; an overdose that was in part caused by codeine.

But narcotic cough syrup is not the only prescription drug that has found its way into the annals of rap history and contemporary culture. In more recent years, prescription painkillers, antidepressants, and sleep aids have become popular subjects of discussion in the lyrics of the industry’s most influential artists. Lil Wayne, Future, ASAP Rocky, and scores of other artists rap almost exclusively about their compulsive and destructive drug habits. But the line between confessional artistry and brazen celebration has become almost invisibly thin. Future’s hit song, “Mask Off”, features the repeating hook, “Percocet, Molly, Percocet,” over and over. A lyric that is loudly and obliviously chanted by thousands of adoring fans at Future’s performances. Although the song itself is about the artist’s struggles with addiction, synonymizing the admittance of a drug habit with the removal of a metaphorical mask, the meaning is lost on a fan base caught up in a culture that glorifies those drugs.

Lil Peep’s music also heavily referenced his drug abuse as a symptom of deep depression and loneliness. Sadly, while he was alive, his fans and the industry alike tended to miss the point, obsessed with his bad boy persona and teen heart-throb magnetism. Lil Peep failed to make drugs seem dangerous. Instead he made them seem cool, even after his death. And therein lies the problem. Hip hop’s prescription drug fetish is peaking at a time when the nation is battling the worst drug crisis in American history. Rates of opioid related deaths are climbing and have been climbing for years. America is battling an addiction crisis that is killing over 100 people per day. Meanwhile, stadiums full of Future fans sing “Percocet, Molly, Percocet,” while completely missing the artist’s thinly veiled cry for help.

What we as fans must now consider, is that hip hop’s drug problem is multi-facetted. It is not simply a matter of artists abusing and dying from prescriptions drugs, but rather the distorted image of what drug addiction looks like. Most drug addicts are not famous millionaires snorting lines of Xanax in a Las Vegas suite. They are poor, working-class slobs shooting heroin with a dirty needle. Whatever enviable outer lives DJ Screw and Lil Peep led under their stage names, Robert Davis and Gustav Åhr died as painfully, as scared, and as alone as the millions of addicts that came before and will inevitably follow. Given its massive global influence, it is past time for the greater hip hop community to speak out against its own drug culture and condemn both the artists and fans that so boldly glorify prescription drug abuse. In the context of the crisis surrounding these drugs, a culture as prominent and essential as hip hop has a responsibility to affect change. Though rap music may be rooted in counter culture movements and anti-establishment rebellion, today’s rap industry is as much a part of the global zeitgeist as any aspect of human culture. As a result, the industry bares a social responsibility to shape public opinion and individual action on matters as severe as a national and humanitarian drug crisis.

* Screw did not invent Lean, but he is widely credited with introducing the codeine lifestyle to mainstream hip hop, particularly through his unique brand of hip hop.

Hungry Houston: Netflix’s Ugly Delicious goes to H-Town

Entertainment

Chef David Chang is probably the most trending celebrity chef in the world right now, thanks in no small part to his hit Netflix series, Ugly Delicious. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s outstanding. Educational both gastronomically and culturally, with a healthy dose of Chang’s unique brand of raw honesty and opinionated commentary. For Houstonians, particularly those of us who are invested in this city’s food scene, the show marks an important milestone in our city’s struggle for culinary respect. Episode 4 of season 1 brings to global attention what proud Houstonians have known for years; the Bayou City is a food destination on par with, or better than, any of the world’s great food towns. In terms of diversity, authenticity, and creativity, H-Town may well be second to none.

“Crawfish vs. Shrimp” is the name of the Houston-centric episode 4 of Ugly Delicious, though the first 20 minutes could have been called “Houston vs. New Orleans”, as this is the comparison that Chef Chang uses as a launching point for the episode. As a lifelong Houstonian who spent three years living in Louisiana, and has more Cajun friends than one cares to admit, I’ve heard more than my fair share of Houston trash talk. Nowhere is this anti-Houston sentiment felt more strongly than in New Orleans. New Orleanians just seem to hate Houston (because I guess they hate strong economies, diversity, functional roads, and competent government). But honestly, for those of us Houstonians who truly love the Big Easy, their irrational hatred of our city kind of stings. So I must admit that watching Chang gush over Houston’s Viet-Cajun crawfish while absolutely lambasting New Orleans chefs who refuse to break tradition was deeply satisfying. Chang does conveniently gloss over the fact that, while culinarilly creative and culturally inspired, Viet-Cajun crawfish is typically much spicier than traditional Cajun crawfish, and as such does not tend to agree with the average American palate. Nevertheless, his outpour of support for Houston’s multi-cultural food industry is pretty fun to watch.

The show is not without its faults however. Around the thirty minute mark, Chang sits down for a traditional Vietnamese dinner at the home of a Vietnamese-American family of shrimpers. During the dinner Chang peppers the self-described “Vietnamese Rednecks” with loaded questions about Middle-Eastern refugees and whether they should be given the same economic opportunities as Asian-Americans received back in the 1970’s. Johnny Tran, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, born and raised in the Gulf Coast as a fisherman and shrimper, answers Chang’s questions in a more conservative way than the obviously progressive chef was hoping for. Chang later uses Tran’s answers as an indicator that the city’s immigrant populations have naturally integrated with Texas’ strongly conservative mindset, which the host sees as a tragic loss of empathy for modern immigrants. I took issue with this assumption for two reasons. First, the Tran family are shrimpers living along the Gulf Coast, most likely in Pasadena or one of the many fishing towns that, while technically still within the greater Houston area, are far more politically conservative than Houston proper. Second, as Chang mentions earlier in the episode, Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970’s faced a harrowing journey to America, followed by years of racism and attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. In the 40 years that followed, families like the Tran family have found acceptance in the Gulf Coast, in part due to their willingness to assimilate, both culturally and politically. Chang, in an unintended display of his East Coast mentality and privileged upbringing, fails to see the Tran family’s conservative values as a fundamental aspect of their ability to coexist within their community.

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As the episode draws to a close, Change sits in the dining room of Houston’s culinary crown jewel, Underbelly, with his makeshift panel of Houston chefs, led by Underbelly owner and executive chef, Chris Shepherd. Chang poses a question to the group that illustrates an unfortunate misunderstanding that he has about Houston. He asks the group if Houstonians will soon be able to accept Middle-Eastern food as widely as they have accepted Asian food. Immediately every member of the panels responds that Houston already does accept Middle-Eastern food and culture in the same way. Of course, they are absolutely correct. Houston has more shawarma shops and Halal grocers than nearly any American city outside of New York. In fact, sitting in the dining room of Underbelly, Chang was less than two miles away from Halal Guys, Houston’s widely popular food-truck turned brick and mortar, and within five miles of dozens of halal-fusion eateries serving anything from fried chicken to Chinese food. Chang sadly brushes off the emphatic responses of his panel and quickly changes the topic.

In the end, episode 4 of Ugly Delicious is still a triumph of Houston’s cultural diversity and incredible culinary attractions. Despite his political interjections and brash oversights, Chef Chang does far more good for Houston’s reputation and image than harm. His approach of brutal honesty and controversial questioning is a refreshing alternative to food shows that typically feature a host pouring undeserving love and admiration onto every restaurant and/or chef that is ever featured on their show. When dealing with Chang’s brand of unbiased coverage and raw opinions, one must learn to take the good with the bad. Despite my objections to some of his opinions, I applaud the show for its goal of cultural outreach and political education through the medium of food.

PURPOSE PERFECTED

Music

Tobe Nwigwe Uses Hip Hop to Teach Self Determination


“I grew up listening to Fela Kuti, who was like the James Brown of Nigeria […] But I never, ever in my life thought about doing music, ever.” Tobe Nwigwe sits on a bench in the middle of a popular Houston streetwear shop, framed by sneakers and Supreme shirts, to tell me about life growing up in the SWAT*, and how a first generation Nigerian –American discovered a hidden talent that changed his life.

*Southwest Alief Texas

If not evident from the opening quote, Tobe’s personality is deeply rooted in his Nigerian heritage. He is one of five children of immigrant parents, raised in the Alief neighborhood of southwest Houston. “There were seven of us in a two bedroom condominium,” he recalls. Nwigwe’s childhood was fairly standard for an immigrant family from one of Houston’s rougher neighborhoods; low on money, short on opportunity. But young Tobe would develop a special talent early in life that paved the way for a better future.

Tobe’s first skill was hitting people; both on and off the football field. Though as he puts it, “I was trash in football all through little league.” He tells me how a “physical altercation” in the fourth grade gave him the confidence to excel in both a violent sport and a violent community. He eventually earned a scholarship to play linebacker at the University of North Texas, where a season ending injury his senior year derailed a potential NFL career. After football, the young man from Alief searched for a new purpose in life. Through his faith he was inspired to start a nonprofit organization he named Gini Bu Nkpa Gi, “but you can’t pronounce that,” he says. “So we just call it TeamGini.” TeamGini has a simple mission; to help people find their purpose. The phrase literally means, what’s your purpose, in Igbo. Nwigwe is obsessed with the concept of purpose. More specifically, with helping others find their own. His organization uses “edu-tainment” to teach low income middle and high school students in the Houston area leadership skills, responsibility, and financial literacy. It was through his work with TeamGini that he developed a relationship with Eric Thomas, the popular motivational speaker and “hip-hop preacher” whose YouTube videos boast tens of millions of views.

Eric and Tobe developed a strategic partnership a few years ago. From their shared focus on community improvement and enlightenment through entertainment, the pair began working on various projects together. That was how mere happenstance led Eric, and his business partner, to discover Tobe’s untapped hip hop potential. “Long story short, CJ just happened to be scrolling on Facebook and saw me doing a freestyle with my family. After that he told me I needed to be doing music” Despite his reservations, CJ and Eric convinced Tobe to pursue a career in hip hop. Soon he would become the debut artist for their new label, ETA Records.

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In a town known for breeding hip hop talent, Tobe Nwigwe’s music stands alone. His sophisticated lyricism and raspy baritone vocal style are somewhat out of place in the city of candy cars and purple drank. While Houston hip hop has been prolific in the past, the city has largely lacked artistically driven lyrical voices that can remain relevant in the age of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. In discussing his musical influences and favorite artists, I found it interesting that Tobe did not mention a single Houston rapper. Instead, stating that his two greatest musical inspirations are Lauren Hill and Andre 3000. “I always want to speak honestly about who I am and where I come from,” Tobe says. “Whenever I do music I always want to make sure I say something when I say something; if that makes any sense.” The Alief rapper goes on to say that much of what is considered “positive music” in today’s hip hop industry would be considered “corny” by the members of the communities with whom he has developed a rapport. He aims to bring a refreshing level of authenticity and street-cred to his music while still delivering a message of self improvement and positivity.

I finish my interview by asking Tobe what he wishes to bring to both hip hop culture and the city of Houston through his music, his organization, and his life’s work. He gives me a one word answer.

“Purpose.”

I guess you could say he has found his.

 

Cuba – A Photo Series

Carlos

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The following is a collection of photographs from a recent trip to Cuba. It is important to understand that while lush, tropical, and lined with beautiful colonial architecture, Cuba is a nation in a constant state of depression. This depression is both economic and literal. The people of Cuba are humble, kind, and surprisingly high spirited given the political and economic oppression under which they live; however, one thing they should not be called is happy. Happiness is a luxury not afforded to the overwhelming majority of Cuban citizens. The people of Cuba live a life devoid of economic mobility, personal liberties, even the freedom to travel outside the confines of their island nation. Some believe that positive changes, though gradual, have already begun. Still, many who have lived their lives under the Castro regime are suspicious of promises and doubtful of hope. These images represent my experience in Cuba. They reflect the incredible natural and architectural beauty of the island, as well as the hardship and the somber existence that is life in Cuba.

 

The Effects of the Great Recession on Millennial Economic Behavior

Politics

The housing market crashed, Lehman Brothers closed its doors, and the world fell into financial chaos as millions of millennials took their first cautious steps into adulthood. Many of us were students, bearing witness to the greatest economic calamity since the 1930’s. The rest, young professionals and college graduates experiencing firsthand the realities of worldwide recession. What followed were several years of unstable job markets, coupled with higher costs of living and wage stagnation. The effects on my generation were not merely economic, but psychological. Our collective response to the uncertainty of the Great Recession was a change of values. Terms like Disrupt, Start-up Culture, and Side-Hustle have become the manifestations of our experiences.

In 2016, Simon Sinek gave a now viral lecture on millennials in the workplace. Pointing to bad parenting, social media addiction, impatience, and environment, Sinek paints a convincing and concise argument for why millennials are unhappy in their careers. What Simon neglects to mention are the many frustrations millennials have developed toward employers, particularly during the Great Recession and in the years that followed. For example, the average CEO-to-worker pay ratio for major US corporations in 2015 was 276-1; up from a 1965 ratio of 20-1. Over the past 40 years CEO pay has increased by nearly 1,000%, while worker pay has increased by a mere 10%. The rise in executive pay is a direct result of the explosive growth of American corporations. However, lower level employee compensation has remained largely unaffected by revenue growth. This disparity is only magnified by the fact that the Great Recession created years of job market instability. Millennials entered adulthood during a period of massive layoffs and financial insecurity. Adding to the problems of low pay and job loss is the fact that corporate cultures are slow to change and often seem to disregard individual concerns. While the economy has now made a full recovery from the recession of 2008, our trust in corporate culture has not.

The theory of Disruptive Innovation precedes the Great Recession and millennial culture by more than a decade. Harvard professor Clayton M. Cristensen coined the term in 1995 to describe an innovation that, through simplicity and affordability, creates a niche market which will eventually overtake an existing one. In today’s business world the term has taken on a much broader definition. Any company or entrepreneur willing to challenge conventional thought or implement innovative culture is deemed a disruptor. Millennials are overwhelmingly drawn to these modern disruptors, often developing cult like obsessions. But what are the economic and cultural factors that drive this attraction? For one, higher costs of living and lower pay have created a need for economic alternatives to everyday products. This need is driving the current explosion of direct-to-consumer business models. Most popularly implemented by Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker and Casper Mattress, direct-to-consumer brands are using online distribution and social marketing to significantly disrupt retail industries. Social marketing is an important facet of millennial culture. We seek to connect with brands that share our values. Social media introduces avenues for brands to form these relationships. Beyond financial incentives and the convenience factor, disruptors represent a lifestyle that millennials crave; one that centers on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Compounding the effects of lower pay and career instability are substantially higher costs of living. Compared to previous generations, millennials’ are saddled with more debt and higher living expenses. What many now find upon entering the workforce is that they simply cannot afford the same quality of life that their parents enjoyed on single incomes. That reality drives our generational obsession with the “Side-Hustle”, a popular term for secondary sources of income used to supplement primary salaries. A 2016 survey by CareerBuilder found that millennials are working second jobs much more often than their older colleagues. While only 29% of workers reported having a second job, 39% of those 18-24 and 44% of those 25-34 reported earning money on the side. Those figures suggest that nearly half of the millennial group most strongly impacted by the Great Recession have turned to side-hustles to supplement their salaries. What’s more, young people who are pursuing secondary sources of income are seeking avenues that fit their values and lifestyles. Companies that focus on mobility, convenience, and flexibility have strongly benefited from the human capital that millennials offer. Firms like Uber, AirBnB, and Etsy have exploded in recent years thanks to young professionals looking for extra cash. Millennial entrepreneurs are also reshaping the business landscape; launching businesses earlier in life than previous generations. On average, millennials launch their first business at 27, compared to 35 for baby boomers. According to Forbes, these younger business owners are having noticeable impacts on business culture. As owners, millennials are able to implement the startup culture they once craved in their work environment with little or no resistance.

As of a 2016 US census report, millennials have officially surpassed baby boomers as the largest living American generation. At 75.4 million, the influence we have on business culture is much more profound than the creation of niche industries. Start-up cultures have begun to replace corporate cultures, traditional retailers are losing significant market share to direct-to-consumer brands, and social media is becoming the primary platform for marketing and the distribution of information. Our generational values, not long ago in their infancy, are becoming the guidebook for successful businesses. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, millennials are using their influence to usher in a new economy.

Hip Hop Loves Houston

Music

“Purple drink, I still sip. Purple weed, blunt still lit. 
Real n**ga, real b**ch, Purple swag, that Trill sh*t. 
Them candy cars, I’m comin’ down. That paint drip, I still tip.”

If I were teaching a class on hip hop lyrical structure, with a focus on Southeast Texas street culture, those three bars would be in bold letters on the front page of the syllabus. A picture perfect sample of Houston rap. Rhythm, rhyme and tone, they are pure h-town. Only they’re not.

A$AP Rocky raps those words in his 2011 track, “Purple Swag”.
And he’s not from Texas at all. He’s from Harlem.

Yeah… that Harlem … in New York.

Rocky’s artistic liberties in the production of “Purple Swag” (really his entire discography) as well as artistic liberties taken by other artists as Drake, Future, and Migos, have been criticized in the Houston rap scene as cultural plagiarism. They have also been praised, for helping to elevate a once obscure and disrespected subculture to mainstream recognition. What is certain is that these artists have borrowed heavily from a musical tradition that they may or may not fully understand or appreciate. So who is A$AP? A shameless hack, profiting from a culture that he knows very little about? Or is he a true fan of the art, spreading love for the music that shaped his personal aesthetic?

To understand the rise of Houston rap culture, one must understand what this culture was 20 years ago. From its earliest days in the 1980’s, and well into the late 90’s, whatever Hip Hop scene existed in Houston, existed only in Houston. This was well before the days of social media and YouTube, when music styles were much more regional; and hip hop was dominated by east and west. Southern rap was viewed by mainstream audiences and hip hop intellectuals as far too slow, simple, country. But that didn’t bother the pioneers of the Third Coast. Artists like DJ Screw, Big Moe, Scarface, and Big H.A.W.K. were not interested in national acclaim or mainstream acceptance. They steered clear of east/west hostilities and made music that fit their lifestyle, their world view. They sold it tape by tape, friend to friend, until a movement was born. Today’s hip hop charts are adorned with the lasting legacy of these and other Texas artists. Every screwed up hook and “hold up” ad lib is a testament to their influence. I speak only for myself when I say that I view these acts as tokens of respect. Art is about inspiration. Whatever inspires an artist will undoubtedly shine through in their work. But it’s not all love.

Paul Wall admits that the imitation of Houston Hip Hop, “comes with the territory.” But he believes that far too many artists are stealing from the culture without permission. Particularly when it comes to drinking lean, which he regards as the cornerstone of Houston hip hop. In his opinion, those mainstream artists rapping about lean and candy paint, are not UGK aficionados or DJ Screw fanatics. They are little more than “culture vultures”, stealing another city’s creativity.

Paul’s harsh criticism is not without merit. Rappers like Future and Migos (both from Atlanta) have practically made a career out of lean references, slow beats, and distorted vocals. Yet they do not credit the city and artists that popularized such trends. The word “trill”, which holds significant cultural importance to the Third Coast, has long been popular in Northern California. Most bay area rappers credit their region as the home of trill, a word invented in Port Arthur, Texas and popularized by UGK. This cultural appropriation is understandably frustrating to someone like Paul Wall; an OG of Houston Hip Hop. Someone who has been making trill music for longer than some young rappers have been alive. To trailblazers like him, and to the fans that have long supported their local musicians, the mainstreaming of their culture is as much as source of pride as it is a slap in the face.

To set the record straight, I am a huge A$AP Rocky fan. Mainly because he gives proper credit. Rocky is a true admirer of Houston rap and credits much of his sound and style to the artists that paved the way. I believe no one outside of Houston better represents the city and it’s music. Sadly that is not the case for most who bite Houston’s culture. It’s true that some of the world’s greatest art comes from collaboration. Imitation is a tradition as old as art itself. However, within an art form that values originality and regional pride above all else, there is no crime greater than cultural theft. Nothing could be less trill.