The first time Pharrell Williams heard the name Clarence Avant, the Neptunes hitmaker was still a rising artist from Virginia Beach, playing in a band (with future N.E.R.D. members Chad Hugo and Shay Haley) and being mentored by Teddy Riley. “Teddy would always talk about Clarence,” Pharrell tells EW. “You’d hear things like, ‘Oh, you don’t mess with him.’ But it was because he stood for what was right. He wasn’t movable, and his energy was immutable.”
A long line of musicians, athletes, politicians, and studio bigwigs would agree with that assessment. For decades, Avant has been the entertainment world’s quintessential fixer — a larger-than-life, behind-the-scenes player you probably haven’t heard of, who had a hand in everything you have, from launching Bill Withers’ career to getting Hank Aaron his first endorsement deal. For generations of artists, especially Black ones, Avant was seen as a protector. Or, as Diddy put it in The Black Godfather, the 2019 Netflix documentary on Avant’s life, “Clarence makes sure that you don’t get f—ed.”
Little did Pharrell know that, decades after Riley first mentioned Avant, he would be writing a song that soundtracked his documentary. Now The Black Godfather is in the running for an Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics Emmy thanks to “Letter to My Godfather,” a choir-based track produced and written by the Neptunes, with Pharrell on lead vocals.
When Avant’s daughter Nicole first approached Pharrell about the project, he was intimidated, unsure of how to sum up her father’s titanic career in one song. “I always had respect [for him] and never, ever thought that I would have a chance to contribute to his story,” he says. But making it was easier than expected, with Pharrell and Hugo finishing “Letter to My Godfather” in an early morning session the day after they saw the film. Since Avant’s career spans decades, the duo wanted to blend different eras of music, like the 1970s guitar work of Rodriguez (one of Avant’s signees) and hip-hop’s 808 drumbeats. Tying it all together was the choir, a representation of Avant’s connections. “If you notice at the top of the film, all these people [are shown] and then they would shrink to dots,” says Pharrell. “And then you’d see all these dots would align and connect back to Clarence. When I was watching them, I immediately heard those notes.”
Pharrell had met Avant years earlier, in search of that sage wisdom Riley used to tell him about. The experience left him humbled. “I like to help people versus burden people with the help that I might need,” he says, “but, man, I was just a sponge [around Avant]. Those kinds of people, you just want to sit there and listen to them orate.”
Pharrell must have soaked up a lot. Avant, a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, had to navigate an almost exclusively white business world, succeeding in spite of the roadblocks America had erected to keep minorities out. His work early on helped pave the way for artists like Pharrell to stand up for themselves. In 2015, the “Happy” songwriter would channel the now-89-year-old Avant while restructuring his deal with Columbia, which gave him ownership of his own recordings.
“[Avant] was doing these things in the ’50s, when, in my own beloved state of Virginia, we had racial inequity laws being passed to prevent our white brothers and sisters’ children from having to go to integrated schools,” he says. “The history of the music business, it was always purposely not beneficial to people of color. And this man was doing that steady, hard work. He was a game changer.”
Pharrell has been looking to change the game too, particularly in the midst of a nationwide plea for equality. Two months ago, he launched a campaign to help make Juneteenth a national holiday. That fight, he says, is part of a greater push for Black men and women across the country.
“Hey, you trade on our likeness, you use our ideas, you pay some of us handsomely, but not enough of us,” Pharrell says, about predominantly white institutions and companies. “You keep calling us citizens, but you don’t treat us like that… Look at us, we ain’t bitter. We love you. And if you love us, then the same way that we fought to get your independence, you should fight for us to give us our independence and let that be an Independence Day for everybody. We ain’t trying to take your day from you.”
Pharrell has been impressed by the response to his campaign, as well as activists who have been in the streets day in and day out, proactively fighting for a better world. He’s also been heartened by the use of Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright” — a song Pharrell produced and sings the hook on — as a continued rallying cry for the oppressed.
“What an honor and what a privilege,” he says, before attempting to explain in mystic terms what he and Kendrick were doing on that record. “Listen man, God has the juice. The problem is everybody wants to be the ice, and they ain’t got the juice. They don’t realize you just a straw. You lucky if the juice comes through you. Kendrick and I, we just straws, man. And we know that, we’re aware of it. That’s the thing, we lucky to be in the cup.”
Pharrell points to Beyoncé, a frequent collaborator (most recently, Pharrell briefly starred in Black Is King) as an example of someone doing just that. “It’s certainly beautiful to watch her understand that she has power and be generous with it,” he says. “Some people do it, some people end up realizing I’m here to inspire because they’re so good at it. The light gets shined on them and they get used to the warmth of the spotlight.”
To have the gravity, the intelligence, the physicality to portray any of his signature roles — Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, the Black Panther — is a breathtaking feat, but to give four entirely different performances is a striking achievement. Screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker compared Chadwick to the late great John Cazale, another actor who created an impressive body of work in a very short time before cancer robbed us of him.
We met at the Art and Film Ball at LACMA. Laura Wasserman, a longtime friend, sat us next to each other because she figured we would have a “lot to talk about.” She couldn’t have been more right! Chadwick had just been announced as the star of “Black Panther,” based on a comic book I wrote for four years. I was a literal expert on the role that he was about to take on; and he was about to become for the African diaspora what Captain America is for the United States — the symbol of the best of us as a culture.
We spotted each other across the crowded room. He stepped up to me and said, “I know you want to talk about it” and we both broke into laughter! We spent a good chunk of the night talking about the Black Panther and Wakanda, the country he governs. If you want to have a conversation about the differences between Asian fighting styles, Afro Brazilian martial arts and the African arts that preceded capoeira, Chadwick is the guy to have that talk with. If you want to talk about the monarchy system and how to compensate for its flaws, Chadwick is that guy.
A few months later, I asked Chadwick to star in my film as Thurgood Marshall. He was reluctant. He loved the script and we wanted to work together, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play another historical character. Given he was the only person with the gravitas to play the role and the star power to get the movie made, I needed him to say yes.
So, I asked him, “Do you think a Thurgood Marshall should be made?” “Yes, of course” he said. “Well if you say yes, there will be a movie,” I replied. Chadwick was taken aback by the high-pressure tactic, but he understood the historical implications of Marshall’s career. For the greater good, he agreed to do the movie.
The experience was glorious. One of the blessings of the show was shooting in Buffalo. Being a small but lovely town, we spent a lot of time having fun together. By the time Chadwick, Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown were singing Boyz II Men songs together in perfect harmony while on set, you knew the cast had chemistry.
When we were on the road promoting the film, two moments really stick out for me. One was after an interview when we were given a book on the Black people who did the construction of the White House. We were both so excited to get the book. What a pair of nerds! The second was when he was giving the keynote speech at the national NAACP convention. The meeting was in Baltimore, Thurgood’s hometown. He wrote his own speech, polishing it for days. It was powerful, and perfect. What a writer and orator!
“Did you know? You must have known.” I didn’t know. As everyone was calling each other, comforting and remembering Chadwick, the question comes up very quickly in every conversation. From what I can tell, no one knew. Chadwick was beloved by everyone, but he was a quiet, introspective man, who was a dedicated artist and didn’t have use for the trappings of stardom. He kept a small, tight circle of very close friends, who are all talented in their own right, and his wife Simone, who he adored. His team was so loyal that anyone who knew of his illness kept it private.
He would never let disease define him. But more than that, he was a warrior that made every minute count and didn’t let a cancer diagnosis stop him from being his best self.
Chadwick’s dedication to his art was absolute. His love for his culture endless. His thirst for knowledge unquenchable. We lost a great man.
A legendary Black superhero universe has been dormant for two decades. Now it’ll finally return.
The Black superhero has never been common in the comic book industry. An entire Black superhero universe? Even less so.
Black superheroes have had varying degrees of success in comics over the last half century, with Marvel’s Black Panther easily being the most well-known. A Black superhero universe? There’s been only one of relevance. And it has been a sleeping giant for more than two decades.
Now, in an era of protests after the prominent deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police that has put a lens over race relations in all walks of life, the Dakotaverse, as it’s called, has been awakened.
The return of the now-classic imprint that created it, Milestone Comics, is finally upon us.
Five years after an announced revival, these superheroes finally have a relaunch date. The DC Comics-based line, featuring revered 1990s characters such as Static Shock, Icon, Rocket and Hardware, will return to publishing in February 2021. The announcement was scheduled to be made Saturday at DC’s virtual Comic-Con-ish event, DC Fandome.
The revival will kick off with a new digital-only series starring Static Shock, Milestone’s flagship character, who has floated around the DC Comics universe and appeared in his own animated series in the early 2000s. Later in 2021, Milestone will publish a Static Shock original graphic novel written by veteran Hollywood director and producer Reggie Hudlin and drawn by Kyle Baker. Acclaimed comic book artist and Milestone Comics co-founder Denys Cowan will illustrate a new series featuring the company’s first dynamic duo, Icon and Rocket.
This coming Sept. 12, fans attending the second part of DC’s Fandome experience will have 24 hours of digital access to “Milestone Returns” No. 0, an introductory point for new readers and a nostalgic experience for fans who were around at the imprint’s beginnings.
From September up until the February return, Milestone will gradually release digital versions of its archived library of comics, which were previously only in print.
Milestone was founded in 1993 by late comics legend Dwayne McDuffie, Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek Dingle. The mission of these four Black founders was to redefine the type of superhero who could appear on the comic book page as well as diversify the writers and artists behind the capes and superpowers. The characters and the universe they created are still meaningful to comics fans of color, even after Milestone shut down comics production in 1997.
In 2015, The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog reported that Hudlin, Cowan and Dingle planned to revive Milestone, as the comic book industry was making moves to become more diverse. Years went by, and while DC would occasionally announce an update on Milestone’s return, there were still no new comics. In 2019, a settlement was reached in the lawsuit that McDuffies’s widow, Charlotte McDuffie, had filed against the founders behind Milestone’s rebirth. DC had no comment when asked if the suit contributed to the delays.
Saturday’s Fandome announcement makes Milestone’s return as official as it has ever been. Hudlin, who participated in the prerecorded panel, said live-action film and TV adaptations, animated adventures and even podcasts are all potentially in the works. Fans should also hope that DC’s recent teaming-up with McFarlane Toys could lead to a Milestone wave of action figures.
Any fan frustrations because of years of delays from Milestone can give way to a sense of satisfaction, especially given the timing of this news. That Milestone’s announcement was made in a time of racial reckoning in the United States and around the world — a time when Black superheroes matter more than ever before for fans who have always wanted more representation in the medium — makes it a milestone moment.
When Static Shock’s Black History Month resurgence arrives next year, it will be the opening of a door closed for too long in comics. And these heroes’ return will be molded by Black writers and artists who will understand the significance of what they are doing. This news is not an everyday happening at a major comics publisher.
Diversity has improved in mainstream superhero comics, but is still a concern, especially behind the scenes. Many of Marvel’s diversity moments of the past decade, Black Panther aside, have been new characters of color taking on existing mantles, such as Miles Morales/Spider-Man and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel.
Success with the reboot of Milestone characters could lead to more new heroes of color being born, and potentially new talent writing and illustrating them.
That’s the power of having an entire universe of comics heroes who are Black by popular demand. A power that in this moment, only Milestone’s creators wield. Soon we’ll get to see what they do with it.
No other specific details or talent attachments were unveiled about the Static Shock movie, but Hudlin is involved with expanding the creative franchise that is Milestone Media, which launched in 1993 known for superheros like Icon, Rocket and Static Shock. Milestone’s return to publishing will be led by an all-new Static Shock digital comic series scheduled for February 2021. Future offerings will include a Static Shock original graphic novel written by Hudlin with art by Kyle Baker, plus the return of Milestone heroes Icon & Rocket, also written by Hudlin with art by Cowan and more to be announced.
“We’re talking with other divisions at Warner Bros, even those in animated about doing (Milestone Media) feature films, and we’re also involved in extending the Milestone characters into new media, like podcasts with a series of stories on podcast. We want to deliver Milestone Media on whatever platform you want,” said Hudlin.
Static Shock follows a teenage boy, Virgil Hawkins, in the city of Dakota with electricity based powers, who with the help of his inventive friend, fights crime as a superhero. After walking into an area where chemical containers explode, Hawkins is mutated, gaining powers to create, generate, absorb, and control electricity and magnetism.
Static Shock was an early 2000 animated series based on the comic-book that aired the WB Television network’s WB programming block.
Said Phil LaMarr, who voiced Static Shock on the animated series, and was also on today’s panel, “Virgil is what I always wanted as a comic book kid growing up: Black Spider-Man. A good (comic-book) story can make you live it, feel it, and when it does, it resonates on a whole other level. It was so real world, and a textured story removed from the 1930s ‘We are exhibiting the world’. I felt like it was drawn by somebody who lived in a building I could go into. It touched on archetypes as a comic fan that I loved, but also touched on my life as a Black man in the real world.”
Hudlin and LaMarr were also joined by DC Milestone Media co-founder Denys Cowan, DC Publisher and Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee and moderator Marc Bernardin on today’s panel.
Beginning in September through February 2021, DC will digitize classic stories from the Milestone library and make them available for purchase at Comixology, Amazon Kindle, Apple and other participating digital retailers. A list of titles will be announced shortly.
On the second part of DC Fandome on Sept. 12, fans will gain access to Milestone Returns #0, a 17-page sampler, which will be available to read free for 24 hours. Written by Hudlin with Greg Pak and cover by Denys Cowan and Chris Sotomayor, the sampler will introduce and re-introduce fans to Milestone characters such as Static Shock, Icon, Rocket, Duo and others. The sampler features art by an incredible lineup of Talent, including Cowan, Jim Lee, Ryan Benjamin, Khoi Pham, Scott Hanna, Bill Sienkiewicz, Don Ho, Alex Sinclair and Deron Bennett.