‘If Loving You Is Wrong’ Actress Edwina Findley Talks Tyler Perry, Passion and Protest

Like many Americans of late, Washington DC native and actress Edwina Findley has become more politically active recently The actress who is fresh off of closing out her role on Tyler Perry’s series “If Loving You Is Wrong” has also appeared on Shots Fired starring Sanaa Lathan, Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, and Red Tails about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Findley, driven by the recent incidents of police brutality and of course, the death of George Floyd has taken to the streets with thousands of others to make her voice be heard. The actress explained to The Baltimore Times that though she has always been an activist in other ways such as her public speaking, or acting in projects like Shots Fired, “This time, I really felt like, in addition to those things, protesting was important. Being out there, being seen was important. It was another method of joining in this fight for justice.”

Courtesy Photo

“If Loving You Is Wrong”

Findley studied theatre and classical music at storied high school Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC. It was a place she knew she wanted to go since she was a little girl. “When I was eight, I begged my mom to let me go to Duke Ellington,” she recalls. It was a bit too early for eight year-old Edwina but there were plenty of other opportunities in the area for Edwina to start training in the performing arts. “There were all these different programs around town specifically for young predominantly African American artists to help us find our voice and cultivate our talents. For that I am honestly grateful. Growing up in DC is something that I will always treasure.”

After graduating NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Findley cut her TV acting teeth playing Tosha Mitchell in HBO’s classic drama “The Wire.” She says, “It was wonderful. I was working at the Shakespeare Theater in DC when I got the role of Tosha so I was in Baltimore during the day robbing drug dealers and then running back to DC in the evening to do Shakespeare!”

Findley also feels fortunate to have worked on the Tyler Perry created, written, and directed soapy drama, “If Loving You is Wrong,” for five years as “Bright-eyed, somewhat naive, dream-filled” Kelly Isaacs. It was her first time working in that genre and the loyalty and passion of soap fans was one of the best parts of the whole experience for her. “When I go somewhere and I see them, they tell me all the ways in which they wanted to defend me from these crazy lovers. I love how invested the African-American demo that watches the show have been in the plotlines and the characters. They love the drama, the twists and turns, and they love us!”

She also feels fortunate that the show allowed her to get to know Perry and Oprah Winfrey, on whose network the show aired. “Humility is personified in him in the most beautiful way. My experience of Tyler has been that it’s been as important for him to bring other people up as it has been for him to be successful himself. He takes great pride in sharing that success with others. When you’re in his presence you never feel like he’s doing all the things he’s doing. He’s right there with you. And I feel the same about Oprah.”

Though Black Lives Matter felt intensely personal for many of us, it truly hit Findley close to home. Her cousin and his friends, who all attend Morehouse and Spelman, were recently targeted by police. “They were absolutely brutalized by police with no provocation at all. You can be as upstanding as you want, that doesn’t protect you from police brutality or racism.”

Though her cousin is physically okay, she shares that he battles with the after effects. “The level of fear now imposed on him is not fair. He wasn’t walking around the world like that before.”

Edwina and the family have stepped in to help her cousin cope with the trauma. “We’ve been trying to assure him he’s surrounded by people who are here to protect him and care for him.”

Even with the misfortune, Findley is optimistic about the impact the protests have had. “I think we all feel it. This time something is different. This movement is both public and behind the scenes. We’re seeing people who have not historically paid attention, pay attention and I’m encouraged seeing the changes.”

Baltimore Actress Shows Off Impressive Fighting Skills In Action Series ‘Hunters’

When you see the character Roxy Jones, played by Baltimore native Tiffany Boone, execute a couple of smooth roundhouse kicks in the new Jordan Peele produced Amazon series “Hunters,” you’ll most likely think of Pam Grier. Rather, you’ll think of one of the most iconic characters in American film that was played by Grier, “Foxy Brown.” That’s because Roxy kicks ass and takes names while rocking one of the best afros seen on screen since the Blaxploitation era. Boone informs us however, it’s other magical Black girls she looked to for inspiration for the role.

Baltimore actress Tiffany Boone at premiere of Jordan Peele produced Amazon series Hunters

Amazon Publicity

Baltimore actress Tiffany Boone at premiere of Jordan Peele produced Amazon series Hunters

Boone laughs when asked about it. “You know, you put a Black girl in bell bottoms and a big afro and what are people gonna think, right?” She continues, “For me the inspiration for the role was more the women who were at the forefront of the Black Power movement in the 60s and the 70s like Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis.”

It becomes clearer why those choices make perfect sense for the role as the viewer gets deeper into the ten-episode series. Produced by Jordan Peele, and starring Jerrika Hinton (“Greys Anatomy”), as well as acting legends Al Pacino, Carol Kane, and Saul Rubinek, the disconcertingly timely series centers on an unlikely team of vigilantes whose mission is to eliminate a Nazi sleeper cell plotting to establish the fourth reich in nineteen seventies Stylistically and tonally, it is somewhat similar to Tarantino or Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Preacher.

Boone describes her character as being “The coolest girl in the room” She credits the costume and the perfect afro wig. “All of that kind of came like from the second I put on the wig. You can’t help but feel like a badass chick. Those women were so effortlessly cool and so smart and naturally sexy.”

Knowing how often productions get Black women’s wigs wrong on screen, it’s a pleasant surprise how dynamite and outta sight Boone’s character’s afro is. Boone revealed that she was pretty proactive in making that happen. “I had a wig that was the same style as the one you see on the show and I auditioned with that wig. I automatically knew she had to have this hair and when I got the role, I said [to the stylists] ‘Okay, this is where you buy the wig.’”

Doing what she can to make sure she helps create a dignified work environment isn’t new to the thirty-two year old actress. Just prior to our phone interview, Boone issued a statement on social media to end speculation around her allegations of workplace sexual misconduct by her “The Chi” co-star Jason Mitchell, which led to her leaving the series. In part it stated, “Was I able to compromise my values, integrity, and happiness just to be employed?…The weight of what I was leaving behind felt like a ton but the weight of my responsibility to speak up was even heavier.”

During her phone interview with The Baltimore Times, Boone briefly discussed what she considers is the impact of the resurgent #metoo movement. “ It has empowered not only women but men as well. And not even just only in the entertainment industry, any industry to have the power to speak up when they’ve been in a bad work environment.”

Boone also expressed the opinion that she believes #metoo has spurred many employers to hold themselves more accountable. “It’s forced the industry to create an environment, rules, training, different things to make the industry better. It’s not just on the women to speak up, it’s on the whole industry to change the environment period.”

Boone, who’s also a graduate of Baltimore’s storied Baltimore School of The Arts, has been in great demand for a number of high profile projects lately including the upcoming “Little Fires Everywhere,” starring Kerry Washington and “The Midnight Sky” with George Clooney.

With so much filming, she doesn’t get a lot of time to visit her hometown, but when she does, she likes to stay close to home. “The last time I went home was last September for my grandmother’s 70th birthday. My mom and I threw her a birthday party. When I’m there I want to have my mom’s cooking, my grandmother’s cooking and see my nieces and nephews. I don’t get to see my family much so when I get there it’s all about family.”

Harvard Lawyer and Criminal Justice Activist Bryan Stevenson Moves the Fight Against Injustice The Bastions of Culture

“Let’s keep fighting!” Bryan Stevenson implored the audience as he stood on stage with Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson and other cast members of the film Just Mercy, based on his bestselling book of the same name, at the latest NAACP Image Awards. What the Harvard trained defense lawyer and longtime criminal justice activist was referring to was fighting inequities in the US criminal system that harshly discriminates against Black and Brown people, and the poor of all races.

Perhaps the Delaware born and raised Stevenson got this spirit of justice and courage from his mother. She was a woman who urged little Bryan and his sister to get back in a hotel swimming pool hastily exited by a group of outraged whites when he and sister entered as pre-teens. It was also his mother who forced Bryan to apologize, hug, and say “I love you” to a little boy in his community after he had joined his peers in making fun of the little boy’s speech impediment. These were lessons in courage and compassion that Stevenson never forgot and those two characteristics define the work he’s been doing for over thirty years.

Working as a defense lawyer and criminal justice crusader for over twenty years now, Harvard-educated Stevenson has freed multiple innocent men such as Walter McMillan from death row after many years. He’s also become a leader in the movement against mass incarceration. The organization provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted and to those who may not have received a fair trial.

Stevenson, beginning to realize that much of the sentencing was unfair and discriminatory, started his non-profit, the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1989.

We arrived at massive inequities in the criminal justice system, Stevenson believes, by people’s feigned and real ignorance. “We have to educate people and once we do that, people can’t say they didn’t know.” To that end, Stevenson who is also an talented pianist, has branched out from solely being an actor in the criminal justice system to using culture to frame the narrative around America’s criminal justice system, which includes the history from which it’s derived.

After twenty years of fighting behind the scenes for justice, Stevenson realized that he needed to make his voice heard more loudly and to shape a narrative that is closer to what he has personally observed, and to provide solutions. “I realized, we should start talking more publicly to create the environment that we need to execute justice.” The book was the first part of that, and it’s the reason he consented to the film adaptation.

When the opportunity to film Just Mercy came around, he thought it would be a great vehicle for raising people’s consciousness. “A lot of people will see a movie who won’t read a book and if you can use two hours to get people to understand really complex issues and think about them, that’s, that’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.”

In addition to the book and the film, Stevenson has opened a museum and memorial in Alabama to visually memorialize the thousands who have been lynched. The National Peace and Justice Memorial and just steps away, the Legacy Museum, provides a symbolic thruway showing the connection from slavery to the disparities in law enforcement we see today.

Perhaps the most prominent exhibit is the one consisting of 800-plus hanging steel rectangles inside the museum. These name and represent each of the counties (and their states) where a documented lynching took place in the United States. Outside are corresponding temporary markers which each state is encouraged to retrieve and use for their own commemorations of lynching. Maryland has retrieved theirs. “There’s been a pretty active movement in Maryland and the state legislatures actually commissioned people so there’s this group of people working across the state to erect markers on lynching sites. We’ve worked with people in Wicomico County, Anne Arundel County, Prince George’s County. There is a pretty active community of people who are working on this.”

Says Stevenson, “It’s shameful that it’s the 21st century before we actually have cultural institutions that even talk about slavery or lynching. We’re at the very beginning of what I hope will become a cultural revolution that makes it impossible for people in this country, to live here without full awareness and knowledge about the damage that was done.”

Please visit https://eji.org/ for more information.

Founder of Maryland Media Non-Profit On His Journey From Learning Disability to Stellar Career in TV

First came the weeping, then came the whipping. In the aftermath of a fire mistakenly started by him and his sister in their one-room apartment while his mother was at work, Robert Jackson’s shaken mother fell to weeping. The tears were brought on by relief that her kids were okay and likely guilt that as a single working mother, she had to leave little Robert and his sister to fend for themselves. After regaining her composure, she wiped her tears. She then gave Robert the whipping of his life. The post-beating lecture, Jackson recalled in an interview with Baltimore Times included her telling him, “You are too smart to be doing something like this because if you were stupid, then you wouldn’t be alive right now. That really made an imprint on me.”

Jackson had undiagnosed dyslexia all through his youth, which in those days, was often misread. But, Jackson, buoyed by is mother’s belief in his intelligence, found ways to enrich himself educationally and ultimately achieved a long and successful career in media arts, including television and radio.

With his own unhappy experience in traditional education in mind, the Washington DC-raised Jackson started the non-profit B-Roll Media & Arts, Inc. in 2012. With his own money and funding from a number of sources, the program offers free of charge, eight-week sessions in photography, video, filmmaking, music production, and animation. Through a partnership with PG County Parks and Recreation, many of the classes are offered at their locations. The program is open to anyone thirteen to twenty-one though certain tracks are open only to older students. “The filmmaking program,” Jackson explains, “is for ages sixteen to twenty-one because younger kids just didn’t have the discipline to sit and get the theory.” They also ask for a firm commitment to completing the full eight weeks of the program from participants.

Troubled that the sub-standard housing they were in might have played a part in how easily the fire had started, Jackson’s mother wrote to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and asked to be moved to better quality housing. Jackson isn’t sure if Eisenhower himself read the letter, but he does know his mother saw results. Recalls Jackson, “Shortly after she wrote that letter. We got moved. A car came and got us and took us to these newly-built projects in southwest DC. It made an impression on me.”

After a teacher at his elementary school told him he wasn’t smart Jackson says, “I knew I was better than that and I felt that I was going to prove them wrong.” Jackson joined the chess club and deliberately he says, “did activities where I had to use my brain.”

He became an ace football player, runner, and a gifted visual artist. He was also a drummer in the Anacostia High School Band and the VIP Drum and Bugle Corps, an experience so special to him, he made a short film about it.

A mom unafraid to write to the president for better housing for her children raised a son unafraid to write to his congressman for assistance. His dyslexia made it difficult to pass the test that would have allowed him to pursue photography while he was in the Navy, which he joined after high school, so Jackson wrote his DC Congressman. Jackson was then allowed to work in the photo lab where, through his own efforts, he picked up the necessary skills. “I became a Navy photographer,” he recalls triumphantly.

After a medical discharge from the Navy, he used the GI Bill to go to American University, double majoring in Visual Communications and Audio Technology. He then failed, more than once, the test for his FCC license which would allow him to get a job in the broadcasting field. Jackson persevered- again. “After several tries, I passed the FCC test and got my first license and became a broadcast engineer.” Jackson went on to a hugely successful career as an engineer and in technical operations management for companies like BET, NBC, CNN, and NPR.

As his stellar career wound down, Jackson realized he “wanted to be of service to young people.”

In the internet era, the programs taught in B-Roll are at least as important as reading and writing, and in some cases, are even more important. Jackson notes, “The sky is the limit for kids who go through these programs.”

He’s been impressed with the comfort Generation Z has with technology. “This younger generation is unafraid to tackle technology of any type.” He also notices a downside. “They want immediate gratification so the concept of being goal-oriented and working toward a specific goal gets lost, and needs to be focused on.”

Starting and running B-Roll is challenging and Jackson reveals he experienced moments of discouragement that pushed him to consider giving up. However, the universe always shows up, gently but firmly urging him to carry on. A spiritual connection he felt during a near-death experience in the wake of major surgery, really solidified his belief in what he’s doing. He says, “This was my Creator’s way of telling me that I have more work to do on this planet in this physical state. I’ve been given another chance to do this work, so I can’t walk away, I gotta continue this journey.”

For more information about free classes offered by B-Roll Media & Arts, Inc. Please visit www.b-rollmedia.org .

Liris Crosse Makes The World Her Runway With New Book

Liris Crosse was feeling a tad bit under the weather when she did her phone interview with the Baltimore Times. “It’s like a slight cough and sore throat,” she said.

She is doing all she can to combat it in order to be ready for an on camera interview the following day. “I am drinking tea and am gonna run out and get some cough syrup. You know, like Chris Rock said “Gotta put some ‘Tussin on it!” she laughs. This is a woman who doesn’t allow anything to keep her down!

Baltimore born and raised Liris Crosse made history in the sixteenth season of Project Runway when she became the first black plus sized model to win the competition. Fans may recall her unforgettable victory night as she unabashedly shed tears of joy upon realizing she had won. “I was so overcome by emotion,” she recalls. “Imagine, I was the first black plus sized model to walk in a designer finale on Project Runway during season 14!”

It was a scenario that she had envisioned a few years before, so to see it actually happen was extraordinary. “To imagine a thing, speak a thing, do the thing, then to win the thing? What? It is an amazing feeling!”

It would be enough of an achievement if strutting her stuff and bringing her own relatable style of glamour to Project Runway was all Liris Crosse did, but she stays busy! Crosse is also a spokesmodel for designer Maggie Sottero’s bridal fashions and runs her own “Life of a Working Model” bootcamp business where she teaches aspiring models the A to Zs of the the modeling industry.

Now, Crosse adds author to her long list of accomplishments. Her book, “Make The World Your Runway: Top Model Secrets For Everyday Confidence and Success” is a rallying cry for the woman who wants more out of life and more confidence as she goes about attaining it. Covering topics such as “Finding Your Voice” and “Living Your Purpose,” the book’s overarching message is finding the courage and humility to live an authentic life.

If not for Mama Crosse, the book may not have gotten written. Crosse explains that she became so busy and in demand after Project Runway, she had decided to put off writing it indefinitely. “Project Runway happened and your girl was just booked here and there! I was just going to refund anyone who had prepaid,” she says. At one point her mother inquired about how it was going and she told her of her decision. “You know when you think you’re grown, grown and Mama looks at you?” She laughs. “I’m thankful because she really did get me together.”

The Randallstown High School graduate whose father, St. George Crosse, is a well-known religious and political figure in the Baltimore area says she believes her parents, “Probably knew from the womb I was gonna be special. Who comes up with a name like Liris?” she asks incredulously. When she stops laughing she shares that there is actually a special history to the name. “It is a combination of the names of my two grandmothers, Lila and Iris,” she said.

When she first set out on her journey to become a model, it was not easy for her. Though a number of agencies wanted to work with her, she explains, “They all wanted me to lose weight.”

She kept looking until she found Wilhelmina. Long known as an agency that was open to different body types and one of the first to sign black models, Wilhelmina was happy to have Crosse work with them and she was pleased they appreciated her.

She cautions those who want to go into modeling, to do so from a love for the profession and not as a means to an end.

“I talk about this in the book as well. People want to go into modeling to raise their confidence. If anything, modeling will tear you down if you have a weak outlook. It can really mess with your head so your mindset has to be strong.” Her advice is to continue to put good work out there. “Keep putting good work out there and whoever needs to find you, will find you.”

Oakland Museum of California Hip Hop Exhibit Recognizes Art Form as Cultural Juggernaut

Founder of Hip Hop Chess Federation, Adisa Banjoko was hit by what he calls a “euphoric wave” as he stood next to rapper Reza from Wu Tang Clan in 2014.

“Reza’s been a longtime supporter of our organization,” he explained.

“I was,” Banjoko shared, “invited by the World Chess Hall of Fame to help them do an exhibit on hip hop and chess, which is something they had up until that time not even really known about or explored.”

Banjoko’s organization teaches children life skills using the principles of chess, hip hop, and martial arts. On that Saturday morning, as he and Reza stood side by side watching the lines for the hip hop exhibit snake around corners, he was overcome.

“When the feeling passed, I said, ‘this will be much more amazing when we do it in Oakland,’” Banjoko said.

When he got back home, the Oakland native approached his old friend Rene de Guzman, Senior Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California about creating a similar exhibit.

De Guzman passed but Banjoko was persistent and approached him again about two years later. De Guzman then fully grasped Banjoko’s vision.

He said, “Adisa’s approach was to look to hip hop as a life strategy and how it connects to all sorts of other ways youth, in particular, can think about their lives strategically. We thought that was great and actually [a] necessary way to look at hip-hop. Most people think of it as commercial rap.”

Hip-hop, from its beginnings in a Bronx recreation center in 1973, has always been about more than beats and samples and MC’s. It has always been about expressing and reflecting the rhythms of life itself. It has always been about the personal, the political and everything in between.

The collaboration between Banjoko and de Guzman came to fruition with the recent unveiling of the sprawling exhibition “RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom,” at the Oakland Museum of California which runs through August 12, 2018. They decided to name the exhibition as such because the now 45 year-old art form and cultural juggernaut appears to be finally coming into its own. “Hip hop has arrived. Mainstream institutions are talking about it. There’s a hip hop section in the new African-American Museum in D.C.; Harvard and Cornell have hip hop archives and collections. The Kennedy Center has a hip hop program. The folks who were around when hip hop was created are now leaders and influencers and even policy makers.”

Oakland California is the area where the Black Panther movement, boldly asserting the right of African-Americans to have equal economic, social and political power, was born.

Oakland is also strongly associated with one of the central tenets of hip hop ethos— bootstrapping.

“The Bay Area fostered the idea of independence and entrepreneurism. There’s this classic story of rapper Too Short who when he was growing up, no major music label signed hip hop artists let alone hip hop artists from Oakland. He made and then sold his music directly to people from the trunk of his car. It proved you didn’t have to rely on major corporate interests to be successful,” explained de Guzman.

The exhibition will have everything. There will be art by Kehinde Wiley, interactive tours, readings, architectural tours, turntable demonstrations, breakdancing, panels, drum circles, food trucks, hip hop calligraphy, chess workshops, hip hop trivia games, a Sound Lab for the public to flex their DJ skills.

Both de Guzman and Bojanko are excited about the installation by DJ Mike Relm.

“It’s essentially a 45 minute music video that covers the national hip hop origin story. Embedded in that is the Bay Area story and it’s going to blow people’s minds. It’s a big immersive video installation. Projections are 10’ by 20’ and there are two of those. It’s pretty spectacular,” according to de Guzman, Hip hop’s tortured yet shining prince Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in 1996, figures prominently in the exhibition. Shakur’s parents were Black Panthers and activism was central to his life and art. In the wake of the Rodney King verdict in 1992, he wrote an essay, which will be on display for the duration of the exhibition.

“He really saw himself as a freedom fighter even to the point of proposing that the founders of America would be considered thugs now. It’s a very interesting essay for that reason. It shows clear passion for what drove artistry,” said de Guzman.

For more information about the exhibit, visit http://museumca.org/exhibit/respect-hip-hop-style-wisdom.

Picture Perfect Photography Book Captures Various Civil Rights Efforts Across America’s History

By the time Rick Smolan was twenty-five, he was taking pictures for illustrious publications such as Life, Time, New York Times and National Geographic. Perhaps owing to his youth and early success, Smolan didn’t share the jaded outlook of his much older peers. “They would all sit around in bars and bitch and moan about their editors and the stupid magazines they shot for.”

One fateful bar conversation changed Smolan’s career and opened up a whole new avenue of photography- chronicling everyday lives for commercial coffee table books. “ We were at a bar in Bangkok. They said ‘you don’t understand, we don’t want to just document things. We want to upset people and shock people and expose injustices. We want to change the world.” Chastened but undaunted Smolan asked, “What if we all get together and do a book about a day in life like somewhere in Australia?”

History was made as those photographers made the first “day in the life” book, capturing the lives of people on that continent in images over one twenty-four hour period. It was the first of many including A Day in the Life of America, America 24/7, Obama Time Capsule and many more.

Smolan’s newest creation is a hybrid of the traditional coffee table book and phone app. The app is a free download. Pointing your phone at over 60 specially marked photos instantly cues up short video essays about them on your phone. There are also text essays that accompany some of the book’s images. The Good Fight is a meticulously curated 250 plus pages charting many of the men and women whose struggle for (and in some cases against) justice were caught on camera. Most of the pictures were taken by people trained to find and be ready to claim for posterity, incredible never to be duplicated moments. They capture them in a way that challenges the viewer to feel and to act. Smolan observes, “It’s easy to take dramatic pictures during a war. It’s harder to take pictures in a shopping mall and make those pictures move you and make you think.”

Many photos were taken recently. One is a close up of a group of twenty- and thirty-something black men gathered on Baltimore’s West Side. They seem to be desperately trying to physically keep each other from crumpling to the ground. A tear is clearly making its way down the cheek of the one who appears at first glance to be the strongest. It was taken on April 28, 2015 in the wake of the Freddie Gray killing.

Smolan says the goal of The Good Fight is to, “Remind us of how far we’ve come and of how recent and fragile our progress is.” Some of the photos are classic and well-known, such as the stoic, bespectacled Elizabeth Eckford being harassed by white women who encircled her as she attempted (ultimately unsuccessfully) to enter Little Rock High School on September 4, 1957. There is Martin Luther King slumped across the front desk of a Montgomery Alabama police station, Colin Kaepernick in 2016 still in his 49ers uniform, his hair forming a black halo, flanked by teammates, kneeling hand over mouth as if muzzling an existential scream.

There are also many much less well-known photos. Civil Rights icon, Congressman and author John Lewis is shown in 2017 holding a photo of his younger self as he was beaten during a protest. “It’s a metapicture,” Smolan explains,” The fact that he’s holding a photo of himself from a different era and is still fighting the same battles and has become sort of a grand statesman of the civil rights movement.”

One horrifying image is an extreme close-up of a Miami Florida Klansman in 1939. He sits in full Klan gear in the passenger seat of a vehicle. Smolan points out he was one of many Klansmen who would, “Drive through neighborhoods the night before elections and basically say ‘We know where you live. If we see you at the voting booths tomorrow, we’re gonna come back and lynch you.” The klansman’s noose snakes menacingly over the open car window. The Klansman’s dead-seeming eyes do what they are meant to do; stop the viewer’s heart for a nanosecond.

Baltimore Singer and ‘The Voice’ Contestant is Living His Best Life

People often reflect on the way that music has the power to metaphorically “take them to another place.” For singers with abundant talent and ambition however, music really does transport them to many surprising settings. Baltimore native and recent The Voice contestant Davon Fleming is one such singer. His sonorous stylings, “ I like to call it soul fusion,” he says, “a little bit of this, a little bit of that, you know.”, have already taken him to such far-flung locales as Switzerland and Italy. In fact, Fleming had literally just landed in Los Angeles and gotten to his hotel, when we spoke.

Like many singers, Davon has a gospel background, singing from the age of three in church, He continued singing gospel in high school. Amazingly, he didn’t attend the famous Baltimore School of the Arts. “They didn’t choose me” he explains, his voice betraying no regret or resentment. “And I had nieces and nephews who went there, they shoulda got me when they coulda had me.” He says jokingly. Instead, Fleming attended Northwestern High School. They didn’t have a choir there so he would sneak to Milford Mill High School at the end of the day, jetting back and forth “leaving a little early just to get to their rehearsal.”


Trae Patton/NBC

THE VOICE — “Playoff Rounds” — Pictured: (l-r) ShiAnn Jones, Jennifer Hudson, Noah Mac, Davon Fleming.

Fleming just came off a whirlwind experience as a contestant on The Voice where he remained a so-called J Hud team member for the duration. It was almost immediately evident that Davon was going to be special. Eleven seconds into his first song, the judges had all turned their iconic red chairs around. Judge Adam Levine stood up during his entreaty to get Fleming on his team. However, Fleming was swayed by Jennifer Hudson’s soulful and creative use of a sartorial accessory. Deeply moved by his singing, “Jennifer Hudson threw her shoe at me.” He remembers, laughing. “She’s very genuine, very sweet, just pure-hearted.”

As to whether he holds any hard feelings about not winning the whole thing, Fleming expresses nothing but genuine gratitude for the experience. “This was a great ride. I ended up inspiring people not knowing that I would. I’ve gotten love and appreciation from people across the world.”

Fleming is still in his twenties but can teach people of all ages a lot about achieving their goals and dreams. He says, “All ages, no matter if you’re young or old, whatever you aspire to in life, never let fear and doubt stop you from what you want to do. You have to dream big, believe that you can do it and you have to know you’re worth it. Stay focused encourage yourself sometimes.”

One of the biggest perks of the experience was being mentored by singer and actress Jennifer Hudson. The five foot nine songstress got her own start on a program just like this one, American Idol and came in a stunning seventh place. Since then however, she has had a solid career that includes winning an Oscar. Fleming, who says “What I love about Jennifer is that conversations were geared toward me as a person. Before anything vocally, she was concerned about my well-being as a person.” Fleming not only appreciated Hudson’s caring nature but also her wisdom Hudson. Among the things he says he learned from her was, “Nobody can dictate your dreams but you. Never let anyone dictate what you want to do.”

Lately, Baltimore has achieved even greater levels of visibility and influence partly because of cultural powerhouses who have come from and/or worked in the city. Fleming has just joined the ranks of the city’s cultural ambassadors. He says, “I love my city because we are a city that’s on the rise and if I can help inspire and be the face of change for my city, absolutely.” He elaborates, “There’s nothing like coming home to love and Baltimore is a place of love. Now with this platform, I can inspire children. I never thought I would be traveling to Italy and Switzerland or chilling at Jennifer Hudson’s house, but here I am. The mayor of Baltimore wants to give me the key to the city. You know, a lot of stuff is transpiring all because I chose to believe and step out on faith.”

Actress Sonja Sohn’s concern for Baltimore directs HBO documentary ‘Baltimore Rising’

As a young woman, actress Sonja Sohn took a career test that told her she was most fit to be either she says, “An air traffic controller or social worker.” The memory of it makes her laugh with a certain amount of irony. Her latest project is an indicator that the career test was onto something. “Put them together” she says, “and you get director of a social impact documentary.” She starts to chuckle, clearly still tickled at the thought. Sohn makes her directorial debut in the HBO documentary Baltimore Rising, which premieres November 20th.

Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell, head of the Community Partnership Division of the Baltimore Police Department.

Courtesy Photo

Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell, head of the Community Partnership Division of the Baltimore Police Department.

Sohn has appeared in numerous TV shows but is best known for her five-year turn as Detective Kima Greggs in the now classic HBO crime drama “The Wire,” a program famously shot and set in Baltimore. Though Sohn was raised in Newport News, Virginia once she began working in Baltimore that city started to feel more like a home to her.

“I just had this feeling about Baltimore as a home in a way that I think people don’t even understand home. I could literally feel it connecting to me. It carries as deep a meaning as if I’d been born there.” So much so that she started a nonprofit after “The Wire” ended called ReWired for Change, its mission is to help at risk youth. Sohn was in Los Angeles in the spring of 2015. ReWired for Change was on a hiatus.

Sohn had grown frustrated with a lot of the bureaucracy she encountered from the city while administering the program. “I was disgusted with how city leadership was treating the people in these underserved areas. There were so many people in the city who invested in raising up their community and the red tape and obstacles were mind boggling.”

Fate however, came calling in the wake of the demise of Freddie Gray. Disheartened by series of stories about the deaths of young men at the hands of police officers, Sohn had also sworn off the news at the time. “I was walking down the street and some of my fans called to me and asked me ‘Hey you see what’s happening in Baltimore?’” She hadn’t. “They were like, ‘You need to turn on the news. It’s burning.”

In short order, She wrote an op-ed about the events in Baltimore, quit a project she was working on at the time, and went back to Baltimore. “I was like, this little hiatus situation is over. I am being called back.”

Concern for fixing the ills of society swirled in her environment as a child who was very strongly shaped by her experiences with her father and the people in her neighborhood. “My father was active in the community. He was politically active. My babysitter sold the black newspaper and Jet magazine door to door and I went with her. There was a purpose to that. Black newspapers tell our story.”

“Baltimore Rising” is a documentary that focuses on the lives and challenges that confront activists as well as law enforcement in Baltimore. It features the lead investigator in the Freddie Gray case, Dawnyell Taylor, Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell who is head of the Community Partnership Division of the BPD, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, and community leader Genard “Shadow” Barr. Then there is the focus on the next generation of change agents; the young activists Makayla Gilliam-Price, Dayvon Love, Adam Jackson, and Kwame Rose whose confrontation with Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera went viral. Baltimore Rising is a film that both takes a staunchly realistic view of the situation in Baltimore and overflows with empathy for the difficulties faced on all sides. Part of its power is the way it also shines a light on how activism affects the families of those involved in the struggle.

In terms of what she has learned from her years of activism Sohn says, “I hesitate to make any grand sweeping statement about how people should engage in any kind of empowerment activity. It makes a lot of sense to commit to protest work with other strategies that already exist but we’re up against hundreds of years old strategy that works against us. There’s no one way. There are many paths and many lanes and we need everybody driving on all those lanes.”