“I told no one and lived with the shame and guilt thinking all along that I, a 9-year-old child, was somehow responsible for the actions of a grown man.”
October 17, 2017, 16:22 GMT
“I told no one and lived with the shame and guilt thinking all along that I, a 9-year-old child, was somehow responsible for the actions of a grown man.”
October 17, 2017, 16:22 GMT
“At the very beginning of my career I decided I was responsible for my own destiny. When I was in talent management there were no roles for black talent, so I said, ‘Fuck that, I’m creating Monster’s Ball.‘ And history was made. No one’s going to tell me I’m grateful for being anywhere, because I’m creating my own destiny,” he said.
Yvonne Orji has all the makings of the kind of celebrity we haven’t seen in years. She’s a self-proclaimed virgin, she talks about her religion openly, she’s a first-generation immigrant, and she’s someone who isn’t afraid to get political.
The breakout star of Issa Rae’s HBO comedy Insecure came to the US at the age of 6 from Nigeria, because her mother was a nurse and there was a nursing shortage in America. Shortly after President Trump said he would end DACA earlier this week, Orji told BuzzFeed News how she was feeling about the policy change. “I think it’s important to understand that these immigrants are protected by law. They’re not illegal, and they willingly gave their personal information because of that protection,” she said from the Atlanta set of Night School, her first feature film. “So to suddenly place their immigration status in jeopardy is a political move for leverage to push a larger agenda in my opinion.”
Orji also posted on Instagram: “I am a benefactor of the open door of immigration. My dreams are manifesting because of the promises imbedded in the fabric of what already makes this country great. To strip the hope and livelihood of a select few under the false guise of fear is preposterous.”
“I would have the same passion towards this if nobody but my momma knew my name.”
The 33-year-old actor and comedian has grown up seeing firsthand the way immigrants are treated in America. “If you’re an immigrant or child of immigrants, you know the sad stories of a visa application being denied, or someone who couldn’t get let back into the country after risking their status and returning home to bury a parent,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a hard, long road being an undocumented alien, and a lot of these individuals are upstanding, and only want the access to better, like most citizens do.”
Because Orji is quickly becoming one of the most truly open celebrities, many people already knew that she was a proud first-gen Nigerian, but she doesn’t feel pressure to speak on behalf of that severely underrepresented group of people. “When I speak out about things, it’s not on a ‘celebrity’ level,” she said. “I would have the same passion towards this if nobody but my momma knew my name.”
But that’s hardly the case.
Insecure — which follows Issa (Rae), her best friend Molly (Orji), and her sometimes boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) as they navigate the everyday difficulties of post-college adulting in Los Angeles — is a massive hit. And the show’s success shows no signs of slowing down — its second season premiered to 1.1 million viewers, a huge increase from the 371,000 people who watched the Season 1 debut. Whether they’re dealing with microaggressions at work while simultaneously failing at dating in the digital age, or making Girlfriends references and wearing “The FBI Killed Fred Hampton” shirts, the characters on Insecure make their black millennial audience feel seen…so much so that there’s not an episode that doesn’t end with everyone having triggered battle-of-the-sexes Twitter debates of Scandal Season 1 proportions.
For many, it’s nearly impossible to be online for a solid amount of time without seeing an article, tweet, Instagram, or video featuring Orji. A quick search will tell you that she was going to graduate school for public health when she decided to pursue comedy. Swipe through her Instagram feed and you’ll find her dancing barefoot with Luvvie at last year’s White House Christmas party, performing “Tyrone” at a karaoke event in front of Ms. Badu herself, and slaying with her celeb twin Jill Marie Jones on the gram #fortheculture. Still, she’s best known as Molly, the neurotic but lovable lawyer she plays on Insecure (so much so that the occasional crazed fan will yell “broken pussy!” when they spot her).
But it’s her first-gen identity that matters most to Orji, especially now. Her success is an example of the kind of positive impact that immigrants can have on American culture when given the chance. “I know the opportunities I’ve been afforded as an immigrant, and I think these DREAMers can benefit from those same opportunities,” said Orji. “They were brought here as children, and to force them back to a country they don’t know, to have to start over from scratch…seems like there should be another solution.”
Orji has always been clear about wanting to make a difference. About two months earlier, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, Orji greeted me with her bright smile at her local LA nail salon. “I want to take over for Ellen DeGeneres and/or Jimmy Fallon,” she said while we were getting our toes painted. “And not just like, ‘I want to host my own talk show.’ I want to be in a position to write two $50,000 checks to take two kids to school. I want to become a big enough brand that people want to work with me, but then I can say, ‘Great, because you want to work with me, I’m going to help you work with somebody that you don’t even know about.’ That’s the ticket.”
That day, Orji had come straight to the salon from a BET Experience event, and she was heading home to get ready for a dinner after our appointment. She asked me the traditional “What color are you getting?” question to break the ice, before defaulting to a favorite shade of hers, an off-white color called “Don’t Bossa Nova Me Around.” “We just wrapped Insecure, literally. I finished shooting at 3:30 a.m., I got in bed by 4:30 a.m., and my alarm rang at 9 a.m. for today,” she said leaning back into the massage chair and dipping her feet into the warm water in the tub below. “But for me it’s like, whenever I think of how tired I am, I’m just like, ‘No, but this is the life you prayed for.’ This is the life we hoped that we could live. I’m grateful.”
A hustler at her core, Orji is taking a #nodaysoff approach to her newfound fame, so that she can hopefully wield her “it girl” moment into a lifelong career. She had a guest role on the critical darling Jane the Virgin earlier this year, she’s currently filming Night School with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, and she’s also developing First Gen, a TV project of her own based on her life, with David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey executive-producing, while also performing stand-up comedy on the side (she recently went on tour with Chris Rock).
But it took seven years of grinding before Insecure catapulted Orji into stardom. In fact, she was one year ahead of the timeline she asked her parents to give her to make it in the entertainment industry. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it takes eight years to go to med school and then also go to residency. Give me eight years to try and make it,’” she said. “And by the grace of God, we did it in seven.”
Orji got into comedy 11 years ago while participating in the Miss Nigeria in America pageant (yes, that’s the real name). “They were like, ‘What’s your talent?’ I was like, ‘I ain’t got no talent,’” she exclaimed, laughing at the irony more than a decade later. “So I literally prayed. I was like, ‘God, I just bought a dress. I took out a card at Macy’s.’ And he said, ‘Do comedy.’”
Orji wasn’t sure initially. After years of being bullied as a child, she was worried the audience’s reaction would be triggering. “If you’re not funny, people boo,” she said. “And I was performing in front of Africans. Africans are rude as crap. They won’t even boo, they’ll just start talking louder than you like, ‘Whose daughter is this? Oh, please, I beg, get out of the stage.’ It’s just like dismantling your soul in front of you.”
Despite her fears, Orji decided to trust God and did stand-up for the first time at the pageant. And to her surprise, everyone loved it. “At first I was like, ‘Okay, maybe it was a fluke, maybe Jesus came through one time,’ but I entered another competition and won,” she said. “Then, the first time I got paid like $300 for a five-minute set, I was like, ‘Ah, I ain’t never going to med school.’”
While dropping out of graduate school to pursue comedy seemed like a clear decision to Orji, her parents weren’t initially on board. In fact, her mom’s response was “You want to be a jester?” (It’s a line she mirrors in the First Gen trailer.)
“I just think that they didn’t understand. They sacrificed everything so that I could be here, they need a return on their investment,” Orji explained. “I couldn’t tell them when I was going to make it, or what making it would even look like, or what I was going to do for rent, or health insurance. … And as a parent, you want to set your child up for success. You want to cushion them from disappointment, and this industry’s full of blows and disappointments, so you’re going to willingly let your child go into this? I get it.”
At 30, no doors were opening for Orji in Hollywood, so she decided to make one herself using a show concept she’d been playing around with for a while. First Gen would be the first show of its kind to represent the multitude of first-generation Americans with parents from African countries, an audience that has been able to half-relate to black shows like Black-ish and immigrant shows like Fresh Off the Boat, but never both in one package. For Orji, it’s vital to bring that kind of diversity within diversity to the screen. “Nobody says that we have Friends, why do we need Big Bang Theory? Why do we need Seinfeld? They’re just like, ‘I think that works, that formula works,’” Orji said. “There are so many more stories.”
“For her to put her brand behind us, that wasn’t nothing but Jesus.”
So Orji teamed up with casting director Marquita Bradley and writer Katherine Oyegun to create a trailer for the show. They released it online in 2015, and it went viral, catching the attention of Oyelowo, who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents. “My producing partner then cold-called him and asked him if he wanted to be an executive producer on the project,” Orji said. “There was no reason for him to say yes at the time, aside from him thinking it was a dope project,” she said, motioning wildly with her hands, which were wrapped in aluminum foil to remove her gel polish.
But he did just that. “You need to have people in David Oyelowo’s spot who can be like, ‘These three girls who are all assistants and/or broke, let me see how I can help them. Let me take them to a good friend of mine who just happens to own a network and is also a billionaire,'” Orji said.
In the summer of 2015, Oyelowo took Orji and her partners to meet that good friend of his, one Oprah Winfrey, who’s now also an executive producer on First Gen. “For her to be like, ‘I like this. I think the girls in my leadership academy need to see a show that represents them, that they can relate to on such a deep and personal level. How can I be involved?’ It’s like…” Orji trailed off, waving her hands in a Milly Rock–esque way to show how speechless the entire experience left her.
“I was still sleeping on my couch,” she continued. “She didn’t have to meet with me … and for her to put her name behind us, for her to put her brand behind us, for her to see something in this unlikely story, that wasn’t nothing but Jesus.”
Being the hustler (and Nigerian) she is, Orji was still auditioning while developing her First Gen pilot, which is how she ended up landing an audition for Insecure in July 2015, a week after meeting with Winfrey.
Eventually, her parents came around too. “It didn’t register that I had made it for my dad until a week before the [Insecure] premiere,” Orji said with a smile. “He was in Nigeria, and CNN was doing their entertainment weekend special and my picture came up with Issa, and he was like, ‘Oh my god, on CNN they talking about your sister. They’re calling her Molly,'” she recalled. “All his friends were watching CNN at that moment across the globe [and] are seeing his daughter and hearing the Orji name on TV. That’s crazy. That’s when it dawned on my dad, like, ‘I think my daughter’s onto something.'”
“It’s time for understanding to permeate the cultural climate.”
And clearly, influencers as big as Winfrey think the same. She may have a hit show on HBO and a feature film with Kevin Hart, but Orji feels like the little pilot that got her here, First Gen, is what can really make the difference. “I think the environment is ripe and ready for a show like First Gen,” she said in the wake of the DACA decision. (The project is still in development.) “To really be able to humanize so many first-gen stories and see beyond numbers or statistics, and bring a face to those either directly or indirectly affected by such rulings… It’s time for understanding to permeate the cultural climate, and what better way to do that than through the disarming nature of entertainment.”
Sylvia Obell is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sylvia Obell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“Last year, [Molly] would have been very excited to date him, but this year, she’s kind of grown up,” Penny told The Hollywood Reporter. “The fact that she puts Sterling K. Brown on the back burner, I think, is just kind of awesome and unexpected. You’re thinking, ‘Of course they’re going to get together,’ and I like that we didn’t do that.”
Every 4th of July weekend, the black women of America leave their homes and make the pilgrimage to New Orleans for an experience unlike any other. Friends, sisters, aunties, cousins, mother-daughter duos, and lovers fill the city, where they’re the VIPs. This isn’t an awards show or fashion week — those events can keep their exclusionary vibes and sample-sized models. Here, women of every shape create runways wherever they stride, and the only vibes that fill these charming cobblestone roads are good ones. Because on Bourbon Street, there are no velvet ropes, just red carpets made of spilled frozen daiquiris.
This is Essence Fest, the unofficial national convention of black-girl magic, making the Crescent City beam with the power of a full moon since 1994.
“Essence Fest feels like a homecoming to me and so many people, for so many reasons,” Essence’s editor-in-chief, Vanessa DeLuca, said three weeks before the 2017 festival kicked off. “Our audience can come to connect with one another, celebrate with one another, and just have fun in the spirit of community. That’s different from other festivals where really the focus is the music.”
The festival is indeed one of a kind. It’s the only place where you can see Ava DuVernay laughing out loud during an early screening of Girls Trip with Kofi Siriboe one day, and hear her open up about how he and the rest of the Queen Sugar cast supported her when her father died on the Empowerment Stage the next. It’s for sure the only place where you watch Diana Ross make several costume changes without missing a note, cry with Mary J. Blige as she sings the soundtracks to her and your breakups, and then see Xscape reunite, before finally praising God for the whole experience along with Chance the Rapper as he closes out the weekend. It’s also, without a doubt, one of the few times you’re going to see Lawrence (Jay R. Ellis) and Daniel (Y’lan Noel) from Insecure walking together in harmony.
“I used to go to Coachella and things on the West Coast, where it’s a very mixed crowd, but it’s nice to be in a place where you can embrace not just your music, but everything that being black really embodies, from natural hair to food to just celebrating your blackness,” attendee Nesha Logan told BuzzFeed News, right outside the Great Hall where Sunday’s all-star gospel tribute to Cissy Houston took place. “It’s nice to be hosted by a brand and a city that actually celebrates that all year long and particularly has a festival that’s actually geared towards us and bettering our community.”
For 23 years, the Essence Festival, organized by Essence magazine, has provided a unique safe space for its audience to experience the things they love, with the people they love. It’s become an annual tradition so deeply rooted in the community that you’d be hard-pressed to find a black woman in this country who doesn’t know what it is, even if she’s never attended. For many, it’s an annual tradition between friends, à la Girls Trip; for others, it’s a bucket-list goal, a journey to our very own mecca that every black woman knows she should make at least once in her life.
“We really felt that this was a year that we needed to make sure people understood the contributions from black women in particular.”
“We do quite a bit of research on our audience, and we know that in her everyday life, she’s giving so much of herself to others,” explained Essence’s general manager, Joy Profet, a week after wrapping up this year’s fest. “It’s within our DNA as black women, and some of it is within the historical evolution of who we are as black women, where we were trained and groomed to give so much of ourselves.
“Essence was specifically created to be a platform where we gave to her. We’re not looking to take from her or to put more of a burden on her, but we just want her to come in a safe space – whether it’s with her girlfriends, herself, if she wants to bring her family, it’s up to her – but it’s all about her. It doesn’t matter what’s surrounding her; she comes and she gets energized and she feels rejuvenated and she feels safe and comforted.”
The need for a space that rejuvenates and comforts black women is especially vital in 2017, and the festival organizers took that into account. “We really felt that this was a year, coming out of the election, coming out of the Women’s March, that we needed to make sure people understood the contributions from black women in particular — especially when we see a lot of black women, like Kamala Harris and Maxine Waters, for instance, being pinpointed and scapegoated by certain individuals who shall remain nameless just for being outspoken,” said DeLuca.
One of their efforts was turning their “Woke Women” list from Essence’s May issue into the inaugural Woke Awards at the festival, which honored DuVernay and #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Patrice Coolers. They also had several women from that list educate and empower festivalgoers about how to navigate the current state of affairs.
“I find that I am actively seeking what I call safe spaces — where I can be among black people, especially black women, as much as I can,” said #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, who was attending Essence Fest for the first year after being invited to be a part of the Woke Women panel. “That’s why I go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC and that’s why things like Essence Fest are so incredibly important.”
“You can be yourself, be free, wear whatever you want, wear your hair however you want, and just kind of be yourself and feel comfortable.”
The fatigue from the events of this past year were in the air at the festival, as was the gratitude for a place we all knew we could go to retreat and recharge. “There’s been so much negativity, people need a lift,” said Mariatu Turay, owner of Gitas Portal, a contemporary African clothing company in London. She took part in the festival’s marketplace, which allows vendors from black-owned businesses around the world to come and profit from the Essence Fest audience of about half a million attendees. “Our brand also is all about women empowering themselves, so I think having this space bringing black people together, and having these women grafting, that energy is definitely here.”
The festival’s electric concerts, dynamic interviews, and enlightening panels are just part of Essence Fest’s uniqueness. What really makes it special are the connections and interactions between the attendees. It’s that sense of sisterhood that makes it the biggest and longest-running safe haven for black women.
“You can be yourself, be free, wear whatever you want, wear your hair however you want, and just kind of be yourself and feel comfortable with everyone similar to you who understands you,” said attendee Veronica Jones, who had just come from exploring the beauty booths at the convention center. “I live in a small town in Texas. Where I work, I’m one of two black people. So I enjoy it and being in NOLA, which is a city that’s used to black people, so they’re not shocked to see all of us here.”
During the first weekend of July, the Big Easy and the fest itself become a playground of sorts that allows festival attendees to not only bring lifelong friends, but to make them there too. “You’re going to be bumping into people, having adventures with people you don’t know — that camaraderie is very real,” said Cori Murray, Essence’s entertainment director, in the weeks following the 2017 Essence Fest. “It’s like a family reunion with people you don’t know.”
It’s not uncommon to see a group of seasoned women dropping gems of wisdom to younger ones in between panels; to see old college friends run into each other unexpectedly at a concert; or to see a group of strangers doing the wobble together on the convention center floor. Even in the streets of NOLA, restaurants turn into one big party as various small squads pull their tables together and unite over their common mission: the freedom to just be.
“There’s something about the sisterhood of it — all of us can just breathe,” Murray said. “When I’m down there, I find myself spreading so much love because I feel that good. There’s something that genuinely makes me happy about being around all those people and knowing that we’re all there for the same purpose.”
Essence Fest is also a fun and safe space for the celebrities and influencers that grace the pages of the magazine and perform at the festival. They are just as much in need of the refuge the festival provides as the everyday women who attend are; they’re not just at the fest to work, but to play and slay also.
Take the VIP lounge in the Superdome on Friday this year, for instance. There you could find Yara Shahidi literally bowing down to the cast members of Netflix’s Dear White People in admiration and as a form of congratulations after it was announced that the show had been renewed for a second season. Then, she rushed off to see her TV mom’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) real mother, Diana Ross, perform. Also in the pack of celebrities excited to see the original diva onstage? Tina Knowles, who had spoken earlier at the Empowerment Experience about the importance of money management and finance, and was comfortable being out and about — because this crowd knows better than to try to ask about Beyoncé’s not-yet-announced twins or anything else too invasive. After all, she deserves to relax and have a good time too.
Saturday, out in the audience, on the floor of the Superdome, you could find Queen Latifah singing her heart out as Mary J. Blige ran through her catalog of hits. It was clear that Blige, who has been performing at the the festival since the ’90s, felt at home among her core audience as she started to open up about her recent divorce settlement in between notes. “How is it that someone can ruin everyone’s life and I gotta pay for it?” she sang as the crowd shouted back things like “Sing, Mary!” “Take your time!” and “That’s right, sis. Talk about it!”
Blige’s set was part of a ladies-only night of performances called Strength of a Woman, curated by her — a first for both Blige and the festival itself. “We’ve been building a relationship with Blige since she performed at our first festival,” said Profet, who noted that Essence gives Blige “the opportunity to really take her message around strength, empowerment, and women’s rights and allows her a platform to bring that message to [Essence’s] audience, which is also an audience that she’s deeply passionate about.” Profet added: “If you want to really see the essence and the authentic side of who Mary is, and you really want to see a show that’s built on who she is and her authentic self, you come to Essence.”
Jazmine Sullivan was one of the singers Blige tapped to be a part of Saturday night’s show. The curated experience gave her the opportunity not just to sing in front of 45,000 people, but also to join the legendary Chaka Khan on stage — along with Blige, Lalah Hathaway, and Ari Lennox — to sing Khan’s classic hit “I’m Every Woman.”
“Essence Fest is a celebration! For black people especially now — when our music, beauty, and culture are constantly being compromised to adhere to the masses — Essence unapologetically caters to what we as a people are drawn to,” Sullivan told BuzzFeed News the week after her performance. “It feeds our souls and encourages self-love.”
Blige also hosted an exclusive brunch, where she gathered a handful of influential black women across industries, and where she was honored with an Essence Icon Award. “Essence has given me so much strength through the years,” she said during her speech. “Every time you called on me, it was a time when I felt like giving up. So, thank you for so many years of inspiration.”
The cast of HBO’s Insecure also hosted a brunch for a melanin-filled group of friends, journalists, and influencers on Saturday that was, as its creator and star Issa Rae would say, hella lit. It started off with a special screening of the show’s highly anticipated second-season premiere, followed by a Q&A with Rae, costars Jay R. Ellis and Yvonne Orji, and executive producers Prentice Penny and Melina Matsoukas, during which nothing was off-limits (not even Orji joking with Matsoukas about how she missed her calling as a porn director while talking about shooting sex scenes).
But like most of the celebrities in NOLA that weekend, the cast made sure to fit in some fun. They were on the floor of the Superdome on Sunday night rocking out to Matsoukas’ bestie, one Solange Knowles, as she comfortably serenaded the crowd with lyrics made specifically for us, like “Don’t touch my hair,” and “You have the right to be mad.” They stayed all the way through the five-hour night, which included a surprise performance from Mystikal — who Rae noted “could still get it, consensually” on her Instagram story — and ended with Chance the Rapper closing the festival out.
It’s clear black celebrities feel especially comfortable at Essence. “It’s the time of the year that you can be around people and truly feel camaraderie with, truly feel safe with, and are able to enjoy yourself around because it’s that much fun,” Survivor’s Remorse star Tichina Arnold told BuzzFeed News. “It’s given me a wonderful platform to meet the people who support me and meet the people who I fight for every day of my life.”
Essence Fest takes center stage in Girls Trip: Lifestyle guru and author Ryan (Regina Hall) is asked to be a keynote speaker at the fest and decides to bring her three college friends — working mom of two Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), gossip blogger Sasha (Queen Latifah), and party girl Dina (Tiffany Haddish) — in an effort to repair their fractured friendship. Like many, the Flosse Posse, as they refer to themselves, used to make the festival an annual tradition, so where better to remind them of the bond of sisterhood?
“They’re not like trying to behave a particular way because they’re under the gaze of the male lens, or society’s lens even.”
Producer Will Packer, who has long been aware of the festival’s impact, was the one who wanted to make a movie centering on Essence. He’s been a part of the fest since he brought the cast of his movie The Gospel there to promote it in 2004. “I just remember my eyes were just so wide open, because I was blown away by seeing all these various types of black women,” he said of his first time at Essence. “There’s a freedom to these women there. They’re not like trying to behave a particular way because they’re under the gaze of the male lens, or society’s lens even. These women were free and having fun, and feeling fully empowered, and it was quite an experience for me, who is a guest to this, right? This isn’t a festival primarily aimed at black men — not that we’re not welcome, but it’s not about us. I was really impressed by the spectrum that I saw, and the fact that this was a space where these women were truly allowed to be themselves. Of course, the cinematic mind in me said, ‘Oh, this is a movie.’”
The inclusion of the festival definitely helps add to the authentic representation of black friendship in Girls Trip. We all get its pull on friend groups, we understand why Ryan would be a speaker, and we know just how easy it is to let loose and escape the stress of our everyday lives there. “To have a movie that wanted to celebrate black women and black womanhood, setting it at a festival that also celebrates every aspect of black womanhood — this was the right idea,” director Malcolm D. Lee told BuzzFeed News.
“The Essence Festival is something that is kind of iconic in the black community,” Girls Trip cowriter Tracy Oliver said. “There are so many black women who go there every year, or have just been there at some point in their lives with their girlfriends, and you’ve never seen it on film before.”
“I’m always so happy to be in the presence of so many black women who, may not have my same background, but they are me.”
For Packer, the fest is more than just source material for a movie or a place to turn up with friends — it’s where he met and proposed to his wife. “I was there with Idris Elba [in 2009]. He had been brought down to do a party on a riverboat. His job was to go on the boat, say hey, and then get off the boat before it actually departed,“ said Packer. “My wife, Heather, was working for the company that was sponsoring this boat cruise. She was supposed to oversee the activation, make sure everything went right, and then she was supposed to get off before the boat departed. We both, while trying to get off the boat in time, ended up stuck on the boat. It was the best thing that could have ever happened.”
Four years later, Packer returned to the festival with Heather and proposed to her on the main stage at the Superdome in between Jill Scott’s and Maxwell’s performances. “I brought her out onstage and told everybody it was our four-year anniversary of meeting at Essence, and I got down on one knee and proposed,” he recalled.
It’s that sort of sentimental attachment that stars and neighbors alike have to the festival that makes it so special. “I have two sets of pictures from Essence Fest that I treasure: one where I was pregnant with my daughter, Jillian, and my girls came to help me out, and another when one of my girlfriends was a year out from surviving a heart attack and we all took her to Essence Fest as a treat, to remind her that she can still get down,” Murray said. “But whether my girls are there with me or not, the festival fills my cup up. I’m always so happy to be in the presence of so many black women who may not have my same background, but they are me. I see myself in them, and they see themselves in me.” ●
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HOLLYWOOD — As Leslie Jones walked through the Tower Bar in the Sunset Tower Hotel on a sunny Wednesday morning, sipping a Starbucks iced green tea, an elderly white woman quickly got up from her table to stop her. “I’m sorry, I just had to tell you how happy I am we have a voice out there like yours,” she said, reaching out to shake Jones’ hand. “Don’t let them stop you.”
Jones initially seemed startled — which isn’t surprising considering all the negativity the comedian has endured from the public — but halfway through the unsolicited vote of confidence, she softened and thanked the woman for her support.
Later, Jones admitted that kind of thing happens to her all the time. Not only because she’s a 6-foot-tall dark-skinned black woman with a signature spiky hairstyle that only makes her taller, but also because she is one of the top comedians of the moment. And no, not just “top black female comedian” — she’s not here for all the extra labels, never has been.
“It’s not about the struggle or anything, just call me what I am.”
“It’s obvious I’m black, it’s obvious I’m a female, why can’t I just be called a comedian? You don’t say a white female comic, you don’t say a white male comic, but obviously, because I’m black, you have to put that on there. We all have this problem. We gotta stop labeling shit. It’s not about the struggle or anything, just call me what I am,” Jones said from a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant. “I hate getting introduced like, ‘Oh y’all ready for a female!’ at comedy shows because it’s basically like asking, ‘Are y’all ready for a unicorn? Are you ready for this horsey to come up and start eating fire?’ Like, what the fuck? Are we freaks? We’re not.”
If you look at the pie of successful mainstream comedians, black women hold a very small slice. And Jones has managed to have the kind of career any comedian would dream of. She’s gone from BET’s stand-up show Comic View to NBC’s critically acclaimed sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live; from appearing in lower budget movies like 2010’s Lottery Ticket to costarring in blockbusters like the 2016 Ghostbusters remake.
But Jones, a 49-year-old Memphis native, couldn’t care less about being the comedian of the moment — she just wants to make you laugh.
“I’m so glad to get paid for it, but this is what I’d be doing either way,” said Jones, who has spent the majority of her career doing stand-up in local clubs like The Comedy Store in Hollywood and opening up for comedians like Katt Williams and Dave Chappelle. “I love making people laugh, especially making someone laugh that don’t usually laugh. Oh, I love it so much.”
That rush ignited Jones’ desire to become a comedian as a child. “I was watching Richard Pryor, and he had cracked this one joke that made me laugh so hard and made me think, Does this guy know about my life?” she said, gesturing to her heart. “It was just that feeling from laughing really, really hard and getting that tickling feeling in your stomach — it was that. I wanted to make people feel like that.”
That’s what’s on Jones’ mind as she tackles her next big career milestone and the reason she was in LA on the first day of summer: She’s this year’s BET Awards host, an honor that has been held by comedy icons like Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Monique, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Anthony Anderson. It’s a role that hadn’t been given to a woman to handle solo since Monique hosted the show for her third time in 2007.
“I really want to bring comedy forward. That’s what I’m using this opportunity for: to do more stand-up. That’s what I want people to know me for,” said Jones as she widened her eyes and leaned forward with excitement. “I want Sunday’s show to be the most joyous occasion ever. I want it to be a shut-out of hate. I want people to be laughing, shoulders relaxed. I remember watching the BET Awards and watching people enjoy it — that’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
It feels like hatred toward minorities has grown stronger in the current political climate, so making people laugh feels particularly necessary to Jones, who believes the Trump administration is more of a result of America’s problems as opposed to the cause of them. “I get it, Trump is one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had. We’ve lived through bad presidents before,” she said. “The problem is this world isn’t functioning correctly because we don’t care about each other, we don’t care about ourselves. We’re hurtful, we’re mean, there’s just no joy right now. Don’t blame it all on Trump — it’s not just on him. He’s a result of our hate, of our pain, and that’s real talk.”
Jones has experienced that kind of hate firsthand since starting on SNL as a featured player in October 2014, but particularly as she geared up to promote Ghostbusters last summer. “I should be the greatest example of not being downtrodden with all the shit that’s happened to me this year and I’m still fucking walking, because that’s life, man,” she said. “You have to do right when wrong is being done to you.”
“I’m still fucking walking, because that’s life, man.”
“All the shit” that Jones is referring to is the online abuse she’s had to bear from internet trolls, which reached such horrific levels it called into question Twitter’s harassment policies. In July 2016, Jones tweeted some of the awful messages she was receiving from men who called her everything from an ape to the source of AIDS. The situation got so bad, Jones took a Twitter hiatus for self-care, after which her supporters and friends created the #LoveForLeslieJ hashtag to call attention to the situation and to encourage the comedian. Eventually, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey reached out to Jones to help her shut down some of the accounts targeting her, and she returned to Twitter a few days later. But that didn’t stop someone from hacking her website and leaking her personal information and photos.
And yet, after all of this, she’s still managed to rise above.
In the beginning, Jones admitted that she would clap back when people came at her on Twitter because she is a comic after all. But eventually she learned doing so only gave her haters the platform they were looking for. “I was like, ‘Oh, let me not help them do that,’ because most times the things they’re saying are nonsense, so why pay attention to it? It’s like someone coming at you saying your shirt is blue and you’re like, ‘Obviously my shirt is black,’” said Jones in the type of tone reserved for someone who has gotten on every single one of your nerves. “Why fight that? It’s dumb.”
“Bring some goddamn laughter or stop calling yourself a comic.”
Now she says the only way to combat hate is to love it away, which is why she’s putting the call out to comedians to get back to making people laugh. “Because when you laugh, you’re able to let go of your troubles and you’re able to be a little bit more clear about what it is you need to do,” Jones said. “I’m so tired of comedians trying to teach people. Your job is not to teach people; it is to make them laugh. And if we can laugh about the pain, then we can get taught somewhere else. There’s no laughter in this world right now, at least not no pure laughter. And anytime any comedian steps up with the bullshit, they are making people hate us. Step up with some funny shit, don’t step up with that political controversial shit. … Bring some goddamn laughter or stop calling yourself a comic.”
Stand-up is having a resurgence, thanks to Netflix and HBO specials featuring comedians like Dave Chappelle, Jerrod Carmichael, and, of course, Kevin Hart, whose shows now play in movie theaters nationwide. But the traditionally subversive art form is having a bit of a hard time in the new social media era, where activists are ready to check every joke a comedian makes, as Chappelle experienced firsthand when his long-awaited Netflix special included transgender jokes that were not received well.
“That’s another thing we need to work on as a society is walking around offended. Jesus wept,” Jones said, quoting the shortest verse in the Bible without cracking a smile. “You will not be able to live your life if you’re constantly walking around offended. And I’ll tell you, that’s a young problem too. When I was young, I used to get offended about anything. When you get older, you have to stop being offended; because when you like yourself, you don’t get offended so fast. When someone says my feet are big, I laugh because yes, I got some big-ass feet and I’m 6 feet tall. Comedians’ job is to point out what’s going on in society and make it funny.”
Jones’ ability to emerge from all of the online vitriol hurled at her still smiling, still making jokes on Late Night With Seth Meyers and on the Emmys stage, still wanting to make people laugh, is years in the making. “I’ve always been picked on, so you learn how to have a tough skin,” she said. “Also, I believe in God — I have a high spiritual level that allows me not to look at people as attackers, but as people who have a lot of pain that they need to deal with.”
In allowing herself to let go of the hate, Jones has also started to enjoy what being famous offers her, like trips to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, selfies with Adele (or “‘Dele” as she called her when she asked for a photo), and compliments from Beyoncé.
“She told me she was a fan. I was like, ‘But you’re Beyoncé. You Bey,’” Jones remembered with the same shocked expression any mere mortal would have over being praised by the queen. “I kept calling her Bo-niece. She finally asked me, ‘Why do you keep calling me Bo-niece?’ and I said, ‘Because you know nobody is calling you Beyoncé in Texas!’ She was like, ‘You wrong for that, you so wrong for that.’”
“I can’t explain how many realisms come to you when someone close to you dies.”
Moments like that showcase why people can’t help but love Jones: She says what’s on her mind unabashedly, no matter who is listening, and will joke on you no matter how many Grammys you have. She simply gives zero fucks, from the tips of her signature hairstyle to the bottom of her big-ass feet.
And while that mindset brings her peace now, it was born from tragedy. “My brother died,” she said, pausing before adding, “I don’t want to bring the conversation down, but I can’t explain how many realisms come to you when someone close to you dies and how much stuff you don’t care about anymore.”
It was that new attitude that gave Jones the confidence to finally wear her hair the way she does now in public. “I always wore my hair like this at home because whenever I’m off, I just don’t comb my hair. I always liked the style, but I wouldn’t wear it out. Then someone called me out to do a comedy show last minute and I didn’t feel like combing my hair, so I came out and they were like, ‘Yo! That is dope, yo!’” she said, mocking the way men catcall women on any given city block. “And I was like, ‘Wait, y’all like it?’” she continued with her jaw dropped. “And I’ve been wearing my hair like that ever since.”
As for what’s next for Jones — you know, after she hosts BET’s biggest night — she has another season of SNL coming this fall, when she’ll be the only black woman left on the show. But Jones is not about to play Bo-niece or Michelle Obama every weekend now that Sasheer Zamata’s departure has left those impersonations open. “Nothing bothers my creative process,” she stated plainly when asked if she had any concerns about Zamata’s exit affects her work on the show. “I do what I want to.”
Further down the line, Jones would also love to have her own stand-up special — possible titles include Don’t Sit in the Front Row and This Bitch Is Crazy — and another feature film. “I would like to do a serious role in a movie, just because I like when comedians do serious roles, but I do know I’d probably have to be in another funny movie first,” she said.
Ultimately, she’d like to have a career like Whoopi Goldberg’s. “She’s the biggest person I influence my career after,” Jones said. “She has everything, she has the EGOT [Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony]. I always used to say, ‘I want to be like Whoopi, but Leslie.’” (For the record, Jones is open to doing Broadway: “If I was asked to do something there, I’d do it. That would be cool.”)
For Jones though, this is already a level of fame she only once fantasized about. “When I was doing stand-up comedy, way before SNL, I used to say, ‘I want to be big, I want to be real famous,'” she said. “I used to say, ‘I want to be where people come up to me who are on those tours and say, ‘Leslie Jones, we wanna take a picture with you.’”
And now, “that actually happened to me,” she said with a smile. Better yet, people in LA restaurants stop her to tell her how happy they are to have a voice like hers out there. Nope, nothing can stop Leslie Jones. ●
The album rose to No. 1 on the US Billboard chart in its second week, making Foxx the fourth artist to have ever won an Academy Award for acting, while achieving a No. 1 album on the US Billboard charts. It’s the second of four albums Foxx has blessed us with.