Matthew McConaughey narrates the story of Trap Kitchen founders Spank and News, rival gang members who used a mutual passion for food to create a successful business in Compton. The episode highlights how the entrepreneurs are rewriting their narrative and what happens when people put their differences aside and come together for the greater good of the community. “The Spirit of Conviction” is a weekly docu-series narrated by Academy Award-winner Matthew McConaugheythat dives into the lives of complex individuals who are constantly creating, disrupting, and challenging norms while remaining authentic to who they are.
Hello, my name is Christopher Kenji. I’m a 24-year-old singer-songwriter, graduate of Berklee College of Music and a print/runway model.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO BOTH MUSIC AND MODELING? Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always had a deep passion for music. I picked up the guitar when I was about 10 years old and fell in love — I would spend all my free time playing and writing music (sometimes seven hours a day until my fingers hurt and I couldn’t play anymore). Music has always been and will always be my biggest passion in life; there’s nothing that compares to performing on stage, wearing your heart on your sleeve with your lyrics and melodies and having people connect with you so purely and intimately. Before anything else, I am first and foremost a musician.
As for modeling, it’s kind of funny — I never in a million years ever thought I would become a male model. I know a lot of people grow up having dreams of becoming a supermodel and living that glamorous lifestyle or something but that was never me as a kid. Growing up, I never really thought of myself as a physically attractive person; if anything, I was told the opposite at times so it’s still kind of surreal to me when I think about it. Anyway, my modeling journey started last September when I was at my friend’s show in LA and he introduced me to a woman there who happened to have spent years working in the fashion industry (little did I know, she would go on to become my mentor). She told me that I should become a model and I kind of laughed it off at first but then I realized she was actually very serious about it. I was kind of tipsy at the time, but I told her I guess I could give it a shot and she held me to it.
She then signed me up for a runway show casting in San Francisco. I went, got placed in two shows and ended up being awarded best model of 2018. They made me make a speech in front of the whole audience and it was one of the few moments in my life where I was truly and utterly dumbfounded. It almost felt like the world was playing a big joke on me but it wasn’t a joke; it was real. Having that experience really gave me the motivation to seriously pursue modeling and ever since then, it’s become a huge part of my life.
DO YOU DO ANYTHING SPECIFIC TO KEEP UP YOUR APPEARANCE FOR MODELING?
Yes, I actually kind of changed my life for modeling. I treat modeling like a job now because, well… it is my job. So, that means I can’t just make poor lifestyle choices all the time anymore. I remember getting an interview with IMG Models in New York City, which was pretty much the biggest interview of my entire life and asking my mentor what I should do to prepare. The first thing she told me was to completely cut out booze for the two weeks before I met with them. I said to her, “I’ll cut it out after tonight when I’m done performing at the bar” and she said “no, cut it out starting right now”. I remember feeling super weird playing 100% sober to a packed crowd of wasted people that night but it really taught me something. After just four days, I noticed that I looked and felt better than I had in literally years. Nowadays, I don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat sugar, I work out super hard in the gym at least 3-4 days a week, I don’t drink any caffeine and I take ice cold showers to wake myself up every morning. Despite it seeming like I gave up all the things that I love in life, as a byproduct, I feel the most healthy and confident in myself that I have ever been. To me, that’s the most rewarding feeling of all.
DID YOU ALWAYS BOTH SING AND PLAY GUITAR OR DID ONE COME AFTER THE OTHER?
No, I used to never sing. I was terrified of the idea. I remember specifically not applying to a music school I was really interested in because they required all of their students to sing. Singing always really fascinated me but I was always too nervous to try to do it myself. When I first ever tried to sing, I immediately realized my voice was weird. An astounding majority of the famous male vocalists we all know and love such as Freddy Mercury, Michael Jackson, Sting, Bon Jovi, Paul McCartney, etc. are all tenors with very beautiful, clear, high-pitched voices. I am basically the complete opposite (a bass/baritone with a very low, gritty voice) and I found out pretty quickly that I would never sound like any of them no matter how hard I tried.
It took me a long time to really find my voice. When I finally first gathered up the courage to start singing in front of people, I remember getting comments like, “you’re good at guitar, I think you should stick to that” and whatnot. It was a lot of work behind the scenes to get my singing to where it is today but it’s interesting —the qualities of my voice that I used to view as imperfections are now often the things that people tell me they like most about my voice. It’s crazy how things work out like that ––I’ve come to realize that sometimes a lot of the things in life that seem like curses really are just blessings in disguise. DO YOUR TATTOOS HAVE MEANINGS? IF SO, WHAT DO THEY SYMBOLIZE?
Yes, all of my tattoos have meanings. I’m a very OCD person and all of my tattoos are organized. The right side of my body reflects my internal qualities (my birth name, birth year/place and birth order) and the left side of my body reflects my external qualities (my music and my martial arts). On my right side: being a quarter Japanese, I have my Japanese middle name “Kenji” (which translates to ‘healthy; rule’) on my right upper arm. I was born in New York City in 1994 and when I was in New York last year, I got that tattooed on my right forearm. I’m also the oldest of three boys and under my right collarbone, I have an arrow with three circles in it symbolizing me and my brothers; the biggest circle represents me (the oldest) and the other two smaller circles represent my two younger brothers.
As for my left side: I have a guitar fretboard which symbolizes my passion for guitar/music on the back of my left forearm ––pretty self-explanatory. And lastly, after training three days a week for 14 years, I wanted to have something on my body representing my black belt in mixed martial arts, so on my left shoulder, I have a rising sun blended with an American flag, which is a symbol that was on the wall of my martial arts studio all the years I trained there.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST GOAL FOR THE FUTURE?
The short simple answer is that I just want to be a rockstar — not going to lie that would be pretty cool. But really, the bigger answer is I want to create art that brings people together. It’s so easy to feel lonely and lost in this world and I hope to make art that helps people feel less alone and inspires them to use their own voice and be heard. When you feel like no one in the world understands you or knows what you’re going through and you hear that one song that just somehow you gets you when no one else does ––a song from a person you’ve never even met but who’s music and lyrics help you know that they’re there living somewhere in this same, big world as you and they feel it too; that’s power. It could also be a character from a story you connect with or a piece of art — it’s something bigger than you or me or anyone.
That’s the reason I chose to be an artist. If I could just even make one person’s life a little bit better or inspire them to express their own individuality whether that be through my music, fashion/modeling work, art, etc., it would make my purpose feel served. I would rather have one person really connect with my art and be invested in what I am trying to say than a million people who don’t really care that much. I’ll either shoot for the stars or die trying but I refuse to be mediocre — that’s how it’s always been and that’s how it’ll always be for the future!
African Republic — The dealer pulled back a shiny pink curtain and
sprinkled the contents of two white envelopes across his desk: sparkling
diamonds, more than 100 of them.
gems are sold legally, he explained. But many are trafficked by rebels
who fight over the mines, adding fuel to a six-year uprising that has
killed thousands and displaced more than a million people here in the
Central African Republic.
Now, hoping to wrest control over the diamond trade and piece the country back together, the government has turned to a new partner — Russia — in what some lawmakers fear is a dangerous bargain that trades one threat for another.
And the central
figure behind the Russian involvement, according to local and Western
officials, is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir V.
Putin who was indicted in the United States last year, accused of
helping to finance “information warfare” and disrupt the 2016 American
The Central African
government has welcomed the Russians, betting that stability will enable
it to sell more diamonds legally and use the money to rebuild the
“The rebellion in our country
has cost us a lot,” said Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, the spokesman for the
Central African president. “No one came to our aid except the Russian
“With the help of Russia,” he added, “we will be able to secure our diamond mines.”
The diamond merchant, Arab Arab Koussay, who runs one of the country’s largest dealerships, fingered the gems on his desk and expressed a similar view. “We can’t control everything in this country,” he said.
But Russia’s help
comes at a cost. Its representatives have struck deals with the
government to mine diamonds where the trade is legal — one of many signs
that Russia’s push into the country is closely tied to the profits it
Russian operatives have even partnered with murderous rebels to obtain diamonds in areas where the trade is outlawed, cashing in on the very lawlessness they have been brought in to end, according to members of the Central African government, Western officials and some of the warlords themselves.
More broadly, the
fact that Russian mercenaries are training the nation’s troops has
unnerved some lawmakers. Human rights violations in the country are so
common that the United Nations imposed
an arms embargo against Central African soldiers. But the Russian
trainers have been accused of abuses as well, including rounding up
innocent bystanders in mass sweeps.
“I keep thinking of what kind of army we are going to have if they are trained by Russians,” said Hamadou Aboubakar Kabirou, a member of Parliament.
Mr. Prigozhin has ties to mining, security and logistics companies that have been set up in the nation since 2017, according to American intelligence officials, Western diplomats and a security analyst who provided registration documents connecting him to some of the businesses. Mr. Prigozhin also personally showed up for peace talks with rebel groups several months ago, according to one warlord present.
Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, is not the only contestant on the new season of “Dancing With the Stars” with a special kind of celebrity wattage.
Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, is also a competitor — at
age 75. Viewers should get ready for liberal lashings of old-school
dazzle and a sense of déjà vu. There is barely a black female pop act —
Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson, Janelle Monáe, Solange Knowles — (let
alone a white one) that hasn’t taken a page from the Supremes look book.
“Millennials love our style,” Ms. Wilson said during a recent interview in London. For anyone wondering why this younger generation has joined older fans of the group’s look, a new book, “Supreme Glamour,” out just in time for the show, makes it all clear. The volume chronicles how the Supremes in their original incarnation (Diana Ross, Ms. Wilson and Florence Ballard) and in their later form as Diana Ross and the Supremes (or DRATS) became agents of cultural change in the 1960s, breaking the race ceiling by weaponizing fashion and defining the way many women — black women, white women — wanted to look. It has photographs of mannequins in 13 of their designs, plus dozens of concert snaps, promotional portraits and album and magazine covers. It is replete with seed pearls and mushroom pleats.
Before the Supremes, as Harold Kramer,
the former curatorial director of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in
Cleveland, notes in the book, no black act “had ever set out to utilize
visual signifiers that made them palatable to a white audience.”
Wilson agreed. “Our glamour changed things,” she said. She was wearing
all black — leggings and a stretch top with cold-shoulder cutouts — and
one of her many wigs, a dead-straight chestnut number with full bangs.
“We were role models,” she continued. “What we wore mattered.”
Her claim is that she and her partners knew exactly what they were doing from the beginning.
Wilson said that when she, Ms. Ross and Ms. Ballard were signed to
Motown Records in 1961, they already had style. “They had a lot to work
with,” she said. “As Maxime Powell, who ran the label’s famous finishing
school, used to say: ‘You girls are diamonds in the rough. We are just
here to polish you.’”
Ms. Wilson remembered that one of the earliest Supremes dresses, with a fitted bodice and stiff balloon skirt, “Diana and I sewed from Butterick patterns.”
When the Supremes broke in 1964, black
singers like Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt performed in deliberately
seductive evening dresses, but they were older, solo artists. Ms. Wilson
and her colleagues were barely out of their teens and wielded the
visual power of three, often in grown-up second-skin gowns freighted
with beads and sequins.
maximized the look with increasingly baroque confections, some with
improbable wings and trompe l’oeil jewelry, like paste crystals sewn
into the neckline. Anyone who saw them live will recall the frisson
produced by such young women in such sophisticated designs. Then, just
when you thought you had them figured out, they turned up on “The Ed
Sullivan Show” in 1969 in fantastical, swishing ponchos and pants
seemingly made of dégradé tinsel.
Whoopi Goldberg, writing in the foreword of Ms. Wilson’s book, the
Supremes “were three of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. These
were brown women as they had never, ever been seen before on national television.”
Ms. Goldberg said she was encouraged to think that “I too could be
well-spoken, tall, majestic, an emissary of black folks” who, like the Supremes, “came from the projects.”
Oprah Winfrey had similar memories, as recounted in “Diana Ross: A Biography” by J. Randy Taraborrelli. “You never saw anything like it in the 1960s — three women of color who were totally empowered, creative, imaginative,” she is quoted as saying. As a 10-year-old black girl “to see the Supremes and know that it was possible to be like them, that black people could do THAT …”
Perhaps the greatest thing about Hustlers is the number of ways it finds to surprise. Yes, Lorene Scafaria’s movie about a pack of scamming strippers led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu hits all the expected beats: a pole dance from J. Lo here, a sensuous shower of dollar bills there. But its greatest delights are the moments that defy what audiences are taught to expect from films like these—and from female characters more generally. In fact, one of those delightful tricks happens early on, when Wu’s green dancer character, Destiny, climbs up to the roof of her new place of work to smoke a cigarette and finds Lopez’s intimidatingly talented Ramona already up there, luxuriating in an impossibly voluminous fur coat. Given the competitive environment Destiny has already found inside the club, it’s easy to assume Ramona will give this newbie the cold shoulder—or at least size her up for a moment. Instead she pulls Destiny into the billowy warmth of her coat, wrapping her arms around her in a Madonna-like shot so serene that its warmth almost radiates from the screen.
Hustlers just wrapped up a fantastic weekend at the box office, where it grossed $33.2 million across 3,250 North American theaters. Given the film’s concept—a group of strippers scamming and drugging corrupt Wall Street moguls just after the 2008 recession—it can be easy to see its success as foretold. But that would underrate its artistry. Hollywood has squandered many a genius concept and “sure thing,” and for many a reason. Casting miscalculations, unfocused writing, bad editing… the list of reasons Hustlers could have failed is nearly infinite. Instead every detail of its execution is a triumph. More important, however, is how Hustlers also satisfies a number of cravings that the entertainment industry has been slow to quench—including diverse casting, a subtle and deeply American understanding of money and class, and a distinct examination of female antiheroes.
There’s something distinctly satisfying about watching Lopez and her merry band of scammers do their thing. Hustlers does indeed feature a diverse cast—but more crucially, the women in this group gel seamlessly, and each role feels tailor-made for the person occupying it, from Lopez as a character as underestimated as she has been throughout her acting career (though Hustlers may put an end to that) to Wu, just a few months removed from a Twitter scandal, as a woman with something to prove. Each of these women represents a different kind of female antihero, female Walter Whites who are doing it all for their families…but also, they’re really, really good at it. It’s not often we see a gaggle of female antiheroes traveling as a group and supporting one another as the Hustlers do. Their compassion for one another is almost enough to make you wonder what makes them “anti”heroes—for a moment, until you remember that they make their living drugging people and stealing large sums of money.
These are characters who have spent their lives on the fringes of society, and chose to build a support system all their own, one that includes the families they already have. Ramona frequently beams over her daughter, affectionately describing motherhood as a “mental illness,” while Destiny has an inseparable bond with her grandmother, who gets some of the film’s most unexpected punch lines. What these women seem to find in one another—and in the crimes they commit—is safety. In one of the film’s warmest scenes, all of these women and their various family members gather for Christmas morning, opening lavish presents but also reveling in one another’s company. Yes, Destiny squeals with glee over the chinchilla fur Ramona buys her—a status symbol that also represents just how far Destiny has come. But she seems even more emotional when she sees her grandmother seamlessly blend in with her friends, effectively transforming what was once a small, isolated family unit into one part of a larger supportive whole. Don Draper could never.
The shared communion these women find in one another might be unorthodox; indeed, it literally exists outside the law. But the genius of Hustlers is the number of ways it finds to challenge its audience to think of a better, more legal place its antiheroes could have looked for such connection and stability. Just look at Destiny’s initial struggle to find a job post-recession, as a potential manager scoffs at her GED and previous job experience. In many ways one gets the sense that Destiny is alienated not only from the job market, but from “polite” society as a whole. The film does not judge Destiny’s behavior. Instead it allows her and her friends to express different viewpoints on the untenable situations in which they find themselves. And it seems like no mistake that for all the love she has for Ramona, Destiny can never quite pinpoint exactly how she feels about the criminal outfit they once ran after it comes crashing down. Instead the only thing that’s achingly clear is how much she misses Ramona. Because for all the materialistic euphoria this film contains, its one true love story is between these two women—and it was clear from that first embrace under Ramona’s fur.