Master braider, hair sculptor and filmmaker Yvette “Kinyozi” Smalls died Monday, April 16 after a brief struggle with cancer. Smalls was a pioneer in the movement of African-American women rejecting definitions of “bad” and “good” hair based on European standards, and reclaiming African traditions of beauty. The lifelong West Philadelphian was 52.
Smalls was the youngest of three daughters born to Samuel and Emma Smalls. “She was the apple of her daddy’s eye cause she was the baby,” recalled family friend Margaret Peterkin. The Carrol Park resident attended Heston Elementary, Shoemaker Jr. High school and graduated with honors from Overbrook High School magnet program. While studying at Harcum Junior College, Smalls began braiding, dressing and sculpting African-American women’s hair in the late 1970s, to put herself through school.
“Hair is my artistic medium and became my mission,” Smalls once told an interviewer. “My hairstyles are always on the edge of avant-garde with an acknowledgment of the roots of my culture. I love to ‘dress’ hair with all kinds of complex techniques as well as to explore creative and artistic aspects of natural hair. In my sanctuary we have a spiritual experience that’s difficult to explain; you come in looking one way and you leave another way.”
Smalls’ journey of self-discovery began as a quest to reverse the negative self-image she saw in the women she encountered. She went on to educate herself in intricate and varied hair braiding, wrapping, coiling and weaving traditions used in her own extended family across the American South, and across the African world, from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Kenya as an important form of creative expression representing both the individuality and social status or role of the wearer. In her own work, she drew on a wide range of styles and techniques, approaching each person’s hair as the ultimate wearable art. In 1998, she completed a documentary “Hair Stories,” broadcast on WYBE-TV and screened in festivals internationally. She has been a featured artist at ODUNDE and appeared at hundreds of schools and community events annually.
“I was so happy to see her do ‘Hair Stories,’” noted Philadelphia Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez, who first taught Smalls at Temple University and became a client and friend. “She was able to tell her story about people she had come in contact with and how she help spread the whole idea of one’s identity and how to be proud of one’s self and how you looked and how you are on this earth. She did it in such a non-invasive fashion — she wasn’t ever rude with it; she was never aggressive with it. She would just present it in a very kind and gentle fashion that I saw people just look up and listen because she did do it in that fashion. It was who she was: a very kind and gentle woman. She moved on this earth with knowledge of how we, as women, quite often did not look at ourselves as beautiful women, and one of the reason why was because sometimes with (skin) color, and with the accompanying thing: the hair.”
The home, or sanctuary, where Smalls honed her craft was a central meeting place for many in the creative and performing arts. When the neo-soul music movement first took off in Philadelphia in the mid-’90s, Smalls was the go-to person for natural hair care and tended the coifs of dozens of young music notables including Erykah Badu, Ursula Rucker, Jill Scott and The Roots, whose drummer credits her for his signature hairstyle.
“(Smalls was the) first person who taught me about the bohemian lifestyle that I would soon capitalize off of and build a movement,” said Ahmir Khalib “QuestLove” Thompson via Facebook. “She taught me about oils, frankincense and myrrh incense, teaching me how to care for my hair (‘oiling and wha treatment?’), the one who encouraged my Afro when damn near EVERYONE fell out laughing at the sight of it in 1994 and made me stick to it when I felt insecure and just wanted to blend in with everyone and just plait or twist it up cause the laughs were unbearable ... you will be missed. Hope I did you proud. I listened to all those talks when you [thought] I wasn’t.”
Smalls’ work has been consistently featured in the press around the globe, and in March the Philadelphia the Folklore Project (PFP) screened her “Hair Stories” documentary and presented her with an award of appreciation honoring her years of vanguard work in folk arts and social change. The event marked the last public apperance Smalls would make.
“In life people pursue happiness and comfortabily, lavish and fine living,” said her only child, Amiri Russam Nichols, 28. “My mother did not need to pursue these things because her love and caring for others outweighed all her desires of materiel goods. She just enjoyed life. She was happy.”
In addition to her son, Smalls is survived by her older siblings: Harriet Smalls and Joyce Smalls-Jones; her former husband, Richard Nichols and her longtime companion Estan Wilsonus-El. A celebration of life memorial is scheduled for June. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/YvetteKinyoziSmalls.
For the second consecutive year, The Roots, Philadelphia’s Grammy-winning hip-hop heavyweights, will host the annual Fourth of July concert on Ben Franklin Parkway, with iconic drummer/DJ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson serving as musical director.
This year’s diverse lineup will feature Grammy-winning rapper/actress Queen Latifah, hit-maker Daryl Hall of the top-selling duo Hall & Oates, hip-hop artist/actor Common, and pop sensation Joe Jonas.
“We are excited to help put together such a great show! Philly’s a natural fit for the Fourth of July Concert,” says Questlove. “The Fourth of July on the Parkway should be what New Year’s Eve in Times Square is to New York.”
Once again, 6abc will broadcast the Independence Day festivities live, beginning at 10 a.m. with the “Celebration of Freedom Ceremony.” Taking place on the steps of Independence Hall, this “patriotic and inspiring” morning featuring music, speeches and excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, will pay tribute to the history of our great nation.
At 11 a.m., the station will begin live coverage of the “Philadelphia Independence Day Parade” as it travels through historic Philadelphia. With marching bands, floats and more than 5,000 participants, this year’s parade features a “Heroes Salute” honoring the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 – The United States Military, veterans, firefighters and police officers.
The evening’s festivities, airing live on 6abc from the Ben Franklin Parkway, begin at 7 p.m. with “A Special July 4th Edition of FYI Philly,” hosted by Karen Rogers and Adam Joseph. The highly anticipated “4th of July Jam” starring The Roots begins at 7:30.
The Roots, who regularly add their funky flavor as the “house band” for NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” threw an awesome party in 2011, hosting Earth, Wind & Fire, Estelle, Michael McDonald, Sarah Bareilles and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
This year’s musical celebration, which concludes with the traditional Grand Finale Fireworks, will also feature performances by surprise guest artists, and last summer Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eddie Levert of the O’Jays stopped by to join the party.
“We know that what really makes it magical are the acts that we didn’t announce yet, so we have about three or four surprise artists that we’re not even going to advertise,” says “Questlove” Thompson. “So when you see them there, it’s going to be that much more magical.”
“Wawa Welcome America! will offer you and your family high-quality, free and most importantly, fun entertainment to celebrate America’s birthday with us,” says Mayor Michael Nutter. For complete information on Wawa Welcome America! visit www.welcomeamerica.com.
“Fela!” the musical phenomenon that won three Tony Awards, including Best Choreography for director Bill T. Jones, comes to the Academy of Music, Broad & Locust Streets, from March 20 through 25.
Produced in part by Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, along with hip-hop mogul “Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, “Fela!” a spectacular celebration of music and dance, is the true story of Fela Kuti, the charismatic and fearless Soul Rebel that created the musical genre known as Afrobeat, and used that music as a weapon against the “corrupt and oppressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa.”
The production stars Sahr Ngaujah, who created the title role on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal. Several members of the original Broadway cast are also featured.
During a recent exclusive interview, the esteemed Bill T. Jones, co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, explained how he was drawn into the story of Fela Kuti, a colorful yet controversial character. “I have to give credit to our lead producer, Steve Hendel, who is married to a woman who does a lot of producing on Broadway, so she sees a lot of things, and he has this enthusiasm. He fell in love with the music of Fela Kuti. He loves world music, but Fela Kuti and the message of Fela Kuti was very moving to him, and he said that this was the greatest music of an unknown composer that he could think of. He thought his mission would be to bring it to a new generation, a new audience, and the way to do that would be through live theater.”
United by an attorney that they share, Jones and Hendel began to give the piece on Fela Kuti serious consideration. “[My attorney] has been trying to get me to do more things like this since he saw me do Derek Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” at the Guthrie Theater in 1994,” said Jones. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of projects that have come through, some were near misses, and he asked me if I wanted to do [‘Fela!’]. I said, ‘Oh yes! I know Fela’s music.’ But I wanted to meet Steve, and Steve came to see my work, and he said, ‘I think you’re the person to do this.’”
Jones, who was one of five recipients for the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, maintains that the show at the Academy of Music will be true to the original Broadway production and said, “The décor will have changed somewhat, but everything else will be there brilliantly.”
Jones also disclosed that “Fela!” has a Philadelphia connection in that The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was instrumental in getting the show produced.
“He was amazing!” said Jones. “I don’t know how he got to the Off-Broadway production, but he came, and he was blown away by it. He sent out an email to 1,500 … some amazing number of people, of which one of them was Jay-Z. So he was a big booster of the show, and we love him for that! I think he was the one who was responsible for Spike Lee coming out, and it became a sensation.”
Jones is confident that the excitement that “Fela!” generated on Broadway will spread Broad Street.
“Come with a group of people that you love to be with, because it’s a really fun show!” he said. “But they should also know that Fela was an unusual character in that, we have people who consider themselves political pop artists, but we don’t have those that have paid the price that Fela has paid. You look at the world right now, and people all over the world fighting for their freedom from dictators, fighting for their rights to determine the use of their resources — Fela was already on that. He was a bad boy! He’s definitely like the rock star in that way. His mother said he was ‘twice born stubborn.’ He wanted to do things his way, but that’s what it took, in a way. So if you’re interested in the new direction of Broadway, you want to come and see something that is unlike anything that’s on Broadway, that has a very moving story of a real person who can inspire you to make change, Fela is that person. He really was about change, and there’s a lot we can learn from him.” For tickets, call (215) 893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.
Every Philadelphian already knows that the best place to celebrate America’s birthday is right here, in America’s birthplace. The annual Wawa Welcome America! Festival comes back next month with 10 patriotic days of family-friendly and free activities through Independence Day. This week-long, only-in-Philadelphia party kicks off on June 24 and culminates July 4 with a parade through Historic Philadelphia and a mega concert with Grammy Award-winning artists, complete with fireworks, at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This year’s musical director for the festival is Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the headline drummer of Philly’s own neo-soul super group, The Roots.
Mayor Michael Nutter recently annouced this year’s Philly Fourth of July Jam will be literally “star”-spangled with some of the brightest and boldest talent on the national music scene descending on Philadelphia to offer an unparalleled entertainment experience.
“In Philadelphia, we save the best for last — an our festival grand finale is ‘The Largest Free Concert in America,’ the Philly 4th of July Jam,” said Nutter. “This year, we’ll welcome back Philadelphia’s own The Roots, to take the stage as the official house band for the Philly 4th of July Jam. They will be joined by an impressive array of some of the brightest and boldest musicians in the country, including Queen Latifah, Daryl Hall, Common, Joe Jonas and other special guests. The concert will end with a bang — literally — as fireworks illuminate the sky over one of the world’s architectural gems, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
Wawa Welcome America! — the nation’s largest, free 4th of July festival — runs from June 25 to July 4, 2012. For more information, go to welcomeamerica.com or call (215) 683-2200.
On Saturday, Oct. 27, 1 - 3 p.m., the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program hosts "The Roots Mural Project Celebration," the culminating event for Mural Arts Month. Roots front man Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson will be present at the celebration being held at World Communications Charter School, 512 S. Broad Street.
The highlight of this event, free and open to the public, will be the unveiling of the initial design of "The Roots Mural Project." with ?uest and Black Thought painting some of the mural panels with member of the public in attendance. The festive afternoon will also feature giveaways, paintings, food and fun, as well as entertainment by Dice Raw of the Roots Crew, Philadelphia hip hop artist Chill Moody and DJ Statik of Illvibe Collective.
Joining Thompson and Trotter will be Jane Golden, Director, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program; Mayor Michael Nutter; Ernel Martinez, lead artist, "The Roots Mural Project" and Tom Woodward, Bank of America, Pennsylvania president.
According to the organization, "The Roots Mural Project" was conceived by the Mural Arts Program to honor the legacy, achievements and role of the Grammy Award-winning band, The Roots, "in the pantheon of great American bands and continuum of accomplished Philadelphia musicians." "The Roots Mural Project tells the story of The Roots — especially Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter's founding of the band — from the genesis to the present day.
The artistic team, known as Amber Art & Design featuring Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, includes artists Ernel Martinez, Charles Barbin, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Willis "Nomo" Humphrey, and Keir Johnston. The mural is being painted on parachute cloth and has involved "hundreds of individuals" who participated in the mural-making process. The mural will be dedicated in 2013.
For information on "The Roots Mural Project Celebration" or the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, call (215) 685-0750 or visit www.muralarts.org.
NEW YORK — Since its beginnings in the 1970s, rap music has transformed from an underground, street-based sound to a definitive part of pop culture, transcending race and becoming one of the strongest — and most prolific — voices of today’s generation. But at the Grammy Awards, rap has had a long-lasting losing streak in the top categories.
The hip-hop sound — first recognized at the 1989 Grammys — has garnered numerous prestigious nominations over the years, and for 10 of the last 14 years, rap acts have either led or tied for most Grammy nominations. But rarely will a hip-hop act win one of the show’s top four honors — album, song and record of the year, along with best new artist. Instead, rap acts tend to win rap awards.
50 Cent, who won his first and only Grammy two years ago, believes Grammy voters are out-of-touch and need a fresh outlook on what’s going on in contemporary music.
“I think that the board is a lot older and they’re conservative, so some of the content in the music is offensive on some level,” said 50 Cent, who famously interrupted Evanescence’s best new artist speech by walking onstage when he lost to the rock group in 2004. “There’s a lot of people that don’t accept that hip-hop culture is now pop culture.”
This year, hip-hop leads the Grammys in nominations again, with Kanye West earning seven; it’s his third year as the show’s top-nominated act, and his fourth overall (he tied Mariah Carey and John Legend for most nominations at the 2006 Grammys). While his song “All of the Lights” is up for song of the year, his critically revered fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” didn’t score an album of the year nomination, a shock to many. Even Jimmy Jam — the chair emeritus of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — was surprised by West’s snub.
“I think he’s one of the genius artists, and I’m saying this as a person who’s worked with Michael Jackson and Prince, so I don’t throw that word around lightly,” Jam said. “So, yes, I was surprised.”
West’s album with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” was also left out of the top album category; both CDs are nominated for best rap album.
Jay-Z, who once boycotted the Grammys because of the show’s lack of love for hip-hop, says Grammy nominations are “cool,” but he doesn’t use the accolades as a barometer of his success.
“The Grammys and all of those other things, they’re fine and it’s a good way for everyone to get together amongst their peers and collect some trophies at the end of the night, but my whole thing is for the people, as long as the people accept it — that’s my real Grammy,” Jay-Z said. “As long as it connects with an audience in a way.”
But Steve Stoute, the former record executive who accused the Grammys of being irrelevant last year in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times after Eminem and Justin Bieber lost top awards, says there is a bigger problem. Stoute believes the Recording Academy doesn’t have board members who understand hip-hop as a true art form.
“If (The Recording Academy) understood that, then (rappers) would be scoring technical points,” he said. “They don’t get the technical points.”
In Grammy history, 14 hip-hop albums have received nominations for album of the year. Lauryn Hill has the distinction of being the first hip-hop artist to win album of the year for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999, but the album, while featuring rap, was heavy on R&B. Hill also won best new artist that year, the second time a rap-based act had done so following Arrested Development’s win in 1993. A rapper hasn’t won the award since.
OutKast, the alternative, genre-bending hip-hop duo, followed in Hill’s footsteps with an album of the year win in 2004 for the double disc “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” It, too, was not strictly hip-hop, as Andre 3000 blended rock and even jazz for his half of the project.
But while there have been high-profile wins, what stands out more are the losses. No rapper has ever won record or song of the year, and both Eminem and West, each nominated three times, have failed to win the album of the year trophy in years where they appeared to be critical favorites.
At last year’s Grammys, three of the five songs nominated for record of the year were rap smashes. Lady Antebellum’s crossover hit, “Need You Now,” ended up taking away the record and song of the year honors.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the leader and drummer of the Roots, says the hip-hop community shares some of the blame for its losing streak. He says those in the genre aren’t involved enough with The Recording Academy, its community and its events.
“We’re not active members of (The Recording Academy) and I promise to take a more active role in that,” said Questlove, who has won three Grammys. “I should definitely come and be more involved in that. It’s taxing time-wise, but you know, I can either sit and complain ... or do something about it.”
Jam says rap’s losses are also a reflection of the Grammy membership, which he said is “traditionally very heavy” with members of the country, jazz and classical music worlds.
“We’re a membership organization and the members vote. So, if the numbers of members who consider themselves of the hip-hop genre ... if those numbers are lower, then the results probably point to that fact,” Jam said.
But Stoute, who is the author of “The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy,” had harsh words for Jam, a founding member of funk-soul band The Time and best known for producing multiple hits for Janet Jackson, Usher, Boyz II Men and more with partner Terry Lewis. Stoute and Jam had a conversation after last year’s awards, and Stoute was upset that Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” wasn’t up for song of the year: At the Grammys, a track is not eligible for that award if it contains a sample or if it’s not an original piece of work; that disqualifies much of rap, which relies heavily on sampling (“Empire State of Mind” samples The Moments’ “Love on a Two-Way Street”).
Stoute said Jam should be helping hip-hop, and blasted the renowned producer.
“What he’s doing is not right,” Stoute said of Jam. “And if he’s supposed to be the guy who understands urban music because of his famed career as a producer ... (and) if he’s not going to be sensitive to the creativity around hip-hop, I am sorry, we’re in trouble.”
Jam, who was the Recording Academy’s chairman from 2005 to 2009, says his goal was to diversify the Grammy community, and if people have an issue with traditional Grammy rules, they should demand a change.
“You can write a proposal,” Jam said. “I hope ... people step up to the challenge rather than dismiss it, which is the easy thing to do.’“
Jam also said he helped bring forth the best rap song award at the 2004 Grammys, which honors rap tracks that contain samples. Jam also implemented a new rule in 2009 that allowed anyone nominated for a Grammy to bypass the regular application process and automatically be made a member for a year. He said he did it so that nominated acts would easily be involved in the organization the following year.
“If hip-hop is the most nominated, then they should be the best represented according to what I did,” Jam said. — (AP)
In the spirit of giving back to his hometown, Philadelphia native Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Grammy Award-winning hop-hop crew, The Roots, is hosting “Let’s Move It Philly,” a charity concert party taking place on Saturday, February 18. Doors open at 8 p.m.
The musical event, benefiting the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, will be held at Sigma Sound Stage, formerly the site of the historic Sigma Sound Studios, located at 212 N. 12th Street.
“Let’s Move It Philly!” uses hip-hop as “a catalyst to spread awareness about the growing obesity problem in underserved communities. The evening will feature special performances by Trotter and his Roots band mate, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, as well as DJ Rich Medina, DJ Diamond Kuts, Nikki Jean and Money Making Jam Boys.
Despite The Roots’ busy schedule as the “house band” on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” along with a multitude of recording and performing commitments, Trotter became involved in the GrassROOTS Community Foundation after a reunion with an old friend.
“I guess two years ago now, there was an event at Warmdaddy’s — like a ‘get to know Black Thought’ kind of thing,” Trotter said during a recent interview. “I went down there, and I spoke to a bunch of people, and there was a bunch of artists with submissions of their interpretations of a portrait of me. I went down there and just kind of sat on the stage and told my story in short.
“At that event, I made contact with a friend who, when she was going for her master’s at Temple, was my upstairs neighbor. Her name is Janice Johnson Dias. I hadn’t seen her in quite a few years — since we both lived in Philadelphia, but now we both own homes about 10 minutes away from each other in North Jersey. She told me she was a professor at John Jay (CUNY), was traveling the country on this health initiative, stressing fitness and addressing sexual and mental and physical health issues to young girls around the country, and she was getting grants to do her projects.
“We both have daughters who are about the same age — maybe a year apart — and she asked me to participate in a fundraiser that she was doing a year ago in Philly. It was at the Blockley. I did the show, and from that point on we’ve been working in concert in this organization. She asked me to come on board and help get this organization started, and she kind of took a sabbatical from her regular teaching gig and is focusing her energies on this GrassROOTS thing. It was an opportunity and one of those things where, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I felt like she had come back into my life to use my influence for the forces of good.”
It is significant that “Let’s Move It Philly,” the first step in a 13-city initiative that will address obesity in the African-American community, will take place at Sigma Sound, where the lion’s share of the unforgettable R&B and soul classics known as “The Sound of Philadelphia” were created. Trotter described his return to the building as a “homecoming,” saying, “Sigma is the first major studio that The Roots worked in, and we recorded our first couple of albums there. It’s definitely a Philadelphia historic landmark, if not a national one.” With the legendary sound studio now converted into a performance venue, Trotter is excited about what will take place within its walls on February 18.
“You can expect to see some great Philadelphia DJs such as DJ Diamond Kuts and Questlove of The Roots and legendary DJ and poet Rich Medina,” he said. “You can expect to see artists that work in conjunction with the GrassROOTS organization like Nikki Jean and myself, and some of the MCs that you hear on Roots albums. So it will be very loose. It’s not as structured as going to a Roots concert. It’s not very traditional in that sense, but it’s like a meeting of the minds to celebrate having a successful first year as the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, and to get like-minded individuals on board with us, moving forward.”
Proceeds from the 2012 concert will benefit C.H.I.C.K.S. (Creating Healthy Informed Confident Knowledgeable Selves), a GrassROOTS after school program for girls at Harding Middle School, located in the Frankford section of the city. C.H.I.C.K.S. focuses on health, literacy, wellness and professional skills. To purchase tickets, visit www.grassrootscharityconcert.eventbrite.com.