Day 2 at Comicpalooza: Esports Updates and Lessons From Yesterday

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Despite today’s constant downpour, Saturday at Comicpalooza has been exceptionally more crowded than Friday. Most visitors don’t make day one as it falls on a work and/or school day. Day two and three are what most consider the real conference. The exhibition floor is shoulder to shoulder, bathroom lines are a problem and even the Hilton lobby across the street — yesterday’s secret coffee break location — is packed with cosplay outfits and wet fans escaping the rain.

Disappointingly, attendance at ESPN’s collegiate esports arena is just as scarce as yesterday. I had hoped the start of both the Overwatch and Star Craft II semifinals this morning would turn up the hype in the gorgeous studio arena. Unfortunately the hype I had hoped for is all happening online, in the live ESPN Twitch stream. With 1.5 million views and counting, the first annual Collegiate Esports Championships have been a massive streaming success. Unfortunately that success didn’t translate to physical audience attendance. That could well be due to the nature of the venue.

While comic and gaming fandoms do somewhat intersect, they are far from synonymous. This is, after all, a comic convention first and foremost. The gaming elements of the three day festival are minimal when compared to the larger pop culture and comic elements. Even with ESPN’s massive presence in the third floor gaming exhibition area, attendance in that part of the conference pails in comparison to the crowds in the main comic spaces.

The lack of esports enthusiasm around Comicpalooza, despite the unquestionable success of the online stream, is concerning for those of us more invested in gaming than comics. Still, the ESPN representatives I’ve spoken to feel strongly that Houston is a perfect home for the CEC (more on that in my Houston Press wrap up article coming out Monday morning).

Overall I’m excited to see so much gaming representation at this year’s festival. Including multiple free play lounges, various amateur tournaments, meet and greet events with the Houston Outlaws, and of course the CEC festivities. My disappointment at the turnout is more to do with my own bloated expectations for what I considered to be a watershed moment for Houston esports.

Lessons from yesterday:

After my first day at the conference I went home with a head full of thoughts on the experience. To quickly recap day one, I watched several hours of collegiate Overwatch and Hearthstone, I interviewed the VP of ESPN Events for my Houston Press article, I sat in on a panel about becoming a successful streamer and I wandered the main exhibition floor for a couple hours (all combined). I also chronicled my food and drink intake for this Houston Press story.

During it all I realized a few things. First and foremost, Hearthstone is the most boring spectator game on earth. I mean Christ on a cracker that game is mind-numbing to watch. If you don’t know, Hearthstone is an online 1v1 fantasy and magic based card game. Think Magic the Gathering meets video poker. Having never played the game and being keenly aware of my complete disinterest in card games, I’m not hating on Hearthstone as a title. I’m sure it’s fun to play if you understand and enjoy the game. That said, I have no idea how such a slow paced, boring and unwatchable title is considered a leader in esports. Or why ESPN would include it in their line up for CEC. That’s just my two cents on the matter. If the fans like it who am I to say it doesn’t belong. I just personally hate it.

The second thing I learned is that Friday is the best day to attend Comicpalooza if you hate crowds and are more interested in the shopping aspect of the event. There were practically no crowds on the exhibition floor, bathrooms were mostly empty and the free play console and PC lounges were open all day long. (Today I was kicked off a PC after 30 minutes because their was a line of people waiting to play.)

Finally, I learned that I’m more committed than ever to this crazy pursuit of writing. Whether it’s music, culture, food or gaming, the past few years have afforded me countless incredible opportunities. As a freelance writer I’ve gained access to incredible concerts and events, sat in on studio sessions, attended secret pop up dinners and dined at the best restaurants. Now my journey is moving into an industry I’ve been passionate about since I was in middle school — video games. This latest development is one I’m incredibly excited about, and this weekend has been the motivation I needed to keep pushing.

So here’s to the future, and to one more day of Comicpalooza.

Day 1 of Covering Comicpalooza and the Collegiate Esports Championships

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If you told a 13 year old me he’d one day get paid to cover a three day festival about comic books, video games and podcasting… well he’d probably ask what podcasting was. And what you were doing in his room. And what boobs feel like. OK, you know what let’s start over.

The point is, for the next three days I’ll be attending Comicpalooza 2019 as a media guest. I will primarily be covering the Collegiate Esport Championships, gaming panels and various esport events for the Houston Press. I’ll also be on a side mission to find the best food in and around the conference and generally having a giddy time avoiding work and the real world for three glorious days.

My goal is to take it all in. To enjoy this weekend as a moment of validation towards a goal I’ve spent three years working for — and have by no means achieved.

As I write this I sit in the lobby of a Hilton Hotel across from the conference. So far this morning I’v watched about 45 minutes of collegiate Overwatch play (Maryville swept Carlton 3-0 in the first round of quarterfinals), I wandered the halls of the labyrinthian George R Brown Convention Center, and eventually resigned myself to a boozy breakfast across the street upon realizing the rest of the conference hasn’t actually started yet.

As I prepare to head back in to catch a panel on becoming a successful video game streamer, I sit in sheer awe of the size and scope of this massive event dedicated entirely to a culture many of us grew up ashamed of. As I watch grown men and women in cosplay pushing their baby Groots in strollers, or stand in the middle of the ESPN live esports arena, it’s difficult to equate this moment with the bullying and ridicule so many young people face as as a result of their devotion to these communities.

The mainstream nature of nerd culture today is a bittersweet feeling for people who long suffered in obscurity, fans of art forms and subcultures now owned, marketed and sold by multi-billion dollar corporations. And yet, that mainstream popularity allows for opportunities like this. Opportunities to turn passions and hobbies into careers. To be part of a global movement.

But alas, I digress. We are here, after all, to have fun.

So stay tuned this weekend for more blog posts, Houston Press articles and Instagram stories. In fact, check out my latest story on HP this morning — a feature on Clutch Gaming, the Houston League of Legends team owned by Tilman Fertitta and the Houston Rockets. The team will be at Comicpalooza this weekend for a meet and greet as part of the esports festivities.

https://www.houstonpress.com/news/houston-esports-team-clutch-gaming-is-leading-the-citys-growing-esports-scene-11288641

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.

uglydelicious2

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.