From The Streets To The Stage, The History Of Rap In Mexico

From The Streets To The Stage, The History Of Rap In Mexico

The musical genre called rap has gained acceptance around the globe, but what is its history in Mexico?

Mexico has many urban neighborhoods on the outskirts of the main cities. There, teenage gangs tend to congregate. Among the teens, those who have an urban artistic talent, whether drawing or producing music, stand out.

One of the first exponents of rap music in Mexico was Caló, which, with its melodic lyrics and studio musical productions, became the first Mexican rap group in the 1990s.

The group had the support of a record label and television, which gave it visibility. However, many rap genre experts do not consider Caló to be proper rap since it did not come from “the streets.”

Rap music is a kind of urban art that has grown in popularity in Mexico and among Mexican-Americans. (Gordon Cowie/Unsplash)

“Caló’s rap was not underground,” said Byron Zamora Giorgge, a radio host, entertainer, and specialist in urban genres from the Ya Fm 102.9 radio station in Veracruz. “Although it had the rhythm, it was not exactly out of the streets, which is the quintessential requirement of this musical genre.”

“Unfortunately, that was the closest thing we had to rap during the early ’90s, so they were sold as ‘rap,’” said Zamora Giorgge. “However, there was real rap being produced, which did not have the support that big groups had since they were from the street, like ‘Sociedad Café,’ ‘Sindicato del terror,’ or ‘4to. del Tren.’ Those could be considered the first rap bands that opened a gap for today’s rap and hip hop’s singers.”

Its history

Influenced by the United States, “rap” reached the ears of thousands of teenagers during the late 1980s. The street-born rhythm soon began to echo through the nation’s youth.

Due to American influence and proximity, the foremost Mexican rap exponents were from the northern parts of Mexico, like Tijuana, Monterrey and Tamaulipas. At the time, the artists sang the songs in Spanglish, in which they mixed English singing with Spanish verses. One of such groups is Cypress Hill.

By the mid-1990s, some bands became more recognized, such as MC Luka, Kartel Aztlán and Homie GMC. Simultaneously, a trio of people from Monterrey of urban origin caught the attention of a record label. The group Control Machete soon became the most popular Mexican rap group and brought the genre to radio stations.

“Control Machete became one of the main Mexican groups of true, street, urban rap,” said Zamora Giorgge. “It took the genre out of the ‘underground’ and made it more widespread through the nation, alongside Cypress Hill, with whom they recorded songs. It was the best thing that could have happened to Mexican rap. Soon enough, more groups appeared, such as Akwid, Cartel de Santa, Mexamafia, VLP and many others.”

It is said that authentic rap comes from street gangs. Still, it has become popular all over the world. (Harry Swales/Unsplash)

Currently, young people more comfortably enjoy rap and its urban subgenres, such as hip hop, reggaeton, trap and freestyle.

“I listen to C-Kan, Cartel de Santa, Millonario, W Corona, Alemán, Santa Fe Klan and Dharius. Those are groups that I like,” said Jose Miguel Moran Cruz, an urban music consumer and pedagogy student at the Universidad Veracruzana. “I also listen to freestyle groups, such as Aczino, RC, Potencia, Lobo Estepario, Rapter. I like those urban and street genres.”

Mexican rap has had massive growth for more than 30 years, during which the genre has found its niche based on a lot of work and effort. The “rap mexa” (Mexican rap) is both on the national and international scene with its lyrical creativity. It is no longer just “street” or protest music, having millions of fans worldwide.”

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez. Edited by Carlin Becker.)

The post From The Streets To The Stage, The History Of Rap In Mexico appeared first on Zenger News.

It’s All Relative: ‘The Onyx Family’ Builds Hit Brand Through YouTube

It’s All Relative: ‘The Onyx Family’ Builds Hit Brand Through YouTube

Imagine creating a work environment where every member of the family is gainfully employed. It’s also profitable enough to be the sole source of income — and don’t have to leave your house.

For Rita and Mirthell Mitchell, that’s a dream come true. The couple built a brand based on their four kids. Now, Shalom, Sinead, Sade (Shasha) and Shiloh are brand ambassadors and content creators.

Better known to the YouTube world as “The Onyx Family,” they have created a huge following.

“The Onyx Family”  claims 6.3 million total subscribers, over 81 million monthly views and nearly 3 1/2 billion lifetime views on their channel. Opportunities to work with Dr. Fauci, an interview with actor Matthew McConaughey and an invite from the Biden/Harris campaign tops an amazing year of growth. This family prides itself on giving as much as it receives. Their philanthropy work includes funding community outreach programs and contributing to HBCU scholarships.

Zenger News spoke with Rita and Mirthell Mitchell to discuss their unique work situation and the decision to quit their 9-5 jobs and build the family brand.

Percy Crawford interviewed Rita and Mirthell Mitchell for Zenger News.

Zenger News: It must be a dream come true to turn an idea into an empire. Did you ever see ‘The Onyx Family’ becoming this big?

Rita Mitchell: No! When we first started, we felt it would be us going on YouTube, making some great family memories. But we didn’t have a concept of how people made money on YouTube, much less build a brand. Everything evolved with time and experience.

Percy Crawford interviewed Rita and Mirthell Mitchell for Zenger News. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Mirthell Mitchell: In 2015, we were dabbling around with YouTube and making funny videos. Not seriously. It wasn’t until 2016 that Rita started doing some research, and then we took it really seriously in March. We got a channel and did all these videos, and in that month, it actually took off. We had never seen that much money in our lifetime in one setting. And in two months, we paid off all of our debt.

Rita: In two weeks, I quit my 9-5. I was at a crossroads. I had to decide if I’m going to work with my family or if I’m going to build this medical company that in the long run could turn a profit. When you’re launching a regular business, it’s more overhead and stress. We put out our first video, and it got a few views. And I thought: “Well, where’s the millions of views?” I started to do my own research and learned about search engine optimization, how to make an appealing thumbnail.

I also let my kids and their creativity just go! Kids can speak to kids. We said: “OK, you’re really good at this, focus on this.” And we did that with everybody. My whole thing was organizing everything, researching, so that when it all came together, it was having the maximum impact.

Zenger: Did you get “You’re crazy for leaving your ‘real’ job” treatment?

Rita: When we first started, I never involved my family or my friends. In fact, for about nine months, we didn’t tell a soul what we were doing. We just did it and depended on loving who we are. We never asked anyone to support it. People really didn’t know what was happening. They saw us going on certain vacations, and they were thinking it was all from my medical company. Till one day, I decided to start sharing what we’ve been doing and letting people know that I actually hadn’t been working in the medical field in a long time. Because the results had already been proven, they were much-much more open, then if we had said, this is what we’re going to do.

Mirthell: They were more curious than anything.

Zenger: What was your “Wow,” moment when you realized how much the brand was growing or went to sleep only to wake up to the views being through the roof

Rita: We had posted this video, I think on a Friday. We hadn’t checked the views, but by Saturday night, it had over 3 million views. It wasn’t even a full 24 hours. We had no clue something could go that far, that high so quickly. When you saw the revenue going up by the thousands every day, it made us understand why some people are doing it full-time. That was my a-ha moment! If you can continue to do this formula, you can get out of the whole 9-5 rut.

Mirthell: I had left my job in October to join my wife in her medical company. I had worked at my job for about 17 years. I loved what I did. I was a marriage and family therapist and also an ordained minister. I really didn’t want to leave my job, but my wife had supported me for many years, and she had this opportunity with these doctors to start this medical company in Florida. It was really her being a nurse practitioner that carried us financially. It brought us to a place where we could sustain ourselves.

A few months later, I actually resigned and left the congregation. I’m Canadian, so I cannot work in the United States — so I am depending on this medical company to be the thing. So, you can imagine when my wife tells me she doesn’t want to do the medical company anymore, she wants to do this thing. And she’ll figure it out. She could foresee that she wouldn’t like it. I was just beside myself: “What are we going to do now?” My a-ha moment came when we started to do YouTube in March. About six months later, it took off. I was like, “OK. We can do this.” It seemed like a blessing outside of anything I could have ever imagined.


Zenger: Then a global pandemic hit. Did that affect the way you put out content or the family dynamic of working together?

Rita: Since we home school and work from home, the only thing that was different is we didn’t focus so much on work. We were conscious of the fact that, as an adult, it’s hard living in a pandemic. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teenager or 20 and wonder what my future is going to be like. When it came to our daily schedule for YouTube and other things, we took a relaxed approach, making sure that everybody’s mental health was prioritized.

Mirthell: It created more intimacy than content. During this time, Shiloh, who’s into gaming, came to us and said: “I’d like to learn Japanese and coding.” We enrolled him in a coding class for part of his homeschooling and he started learning Japanese because a lot of the games that he’s interested in are Japanese. We like to give our children that leverage to be able to discover where they would like to go. That happened during the pandemic.

And then when things like George Floyd happened, we kind of rolled with the punches. We went out there for some time just lending our voice to the movement. As well as with the pandemic, we would create jingles about washing your hands, making sure you’re quarantining effectively. Dr. Fauci saw some of our videos, and he called us and wanted to collaborate. The Biden and Harris team got wind of our channel, and they asked us to help with, ‘Rock the Vote.’ And when they won, asked us to participate in the inauguration.

Zenger: I understand Vice President Harris is related to one of you?

Mirthell: Yes! We didn’t know this prior. We found this out in 2019 when Kamala was running for president, and her father put out his memoir. His memoir kind of went viral, her Jamaican roots, especially within the Jamaican community. My parents are both Jamaican. My mom saw the pictures and the name, and she said: “I know these people. They are my relatives.”

It was quite the surprise to hear the stories from my mom about visiting Kamala’s grandmother back in Jamaica. But we never really met Kamala or her father. I’m not even sure if Kamala knows all of this. It was our little secret, and we enjoyed it, but it did make it a little bit more special. Not only that it was the first black female Vice President that my wife and my daughters could be proud of, but in our hearts, we were like: “Yeah, we in the White House, ya’ll.”

Zenger: You have four kids and allowed each to use their talents to keep this engine running. You’re not forcing them to be a part of something they’re not into.

Mirthell: There is a book that we just read from Matthew McConaughey … we’re doing an interview with him in the next couple of weeks. He described his mother as saying that raising her child was almost like a bowing arrow and a target. Rather than pointing the child toward the target as the arrow, she saw it more that he was the target and the focus was coming toward him. We could identify with that because you get one shot to get them to hit that target. Instead, their gifts and talents were more like magnets, drawing the opportunities to them, as opposed to us trying to make them hit that opportunity.

Fast-forward: They are 21, 20, 18 and 14, sitting at the table with the very professionals of some of the cartoons they were watching as a little kid. The leaders at Nickelodeon responsible for SpongeBob and The Proud Family are all working on our cartoon. The first season launched and is now bought by Amazon Prime. They’re sitting at the table as writers, as producers, my daughter creates the music, and it’s just like, “Whoa!” You shift from them hitting a target to people coming to you.

Zenger: How important is it to keep building the brand and maintaining healthy working relationships with a number of different companies? 

Rita: It’s very important. I always teach the kids this. Now and then, I’ll put on a show, or I’ll put on a song from the ’80s or ’90s and ask: “You think these people are still around? You think they are doing what they were doing back then?” 99% of the time, it’s a no. What I try to do is let them know we are not just entertainers, but a business. That’s why it’s so important to make connections. Brands come and go. But as long as we are networking, we’re being professional and showcasing our platform, but also allowing it to be a platform that showcases other people’s inventions or products.

There is going to be a peak for us, so I’m trying to teach them there can be a legacy — they can pass this on to their children. And have that leg-up we were not allowed to have as black people. The way you do it is by continuing to have business relationships along with being entertaining and fun.

Zenger: Speak a little about the charitable things you have done and are doing. 

Mirthell: We make sure we take a certain percentage of our income, and we set it aside just to give back. We don’t even consider it ours. And we encourage our children to look for opportunities to give. Every week, we give to some family in need, whether it’s online, or it’s brought to our attention that they have a problem. And we encourage our kids to look for individuals in need, so that we can give back to them. Systematically, we give as well to our church and Historically Black Colleges [HBCU]. Every year, we make sure we are giving to the college funds and the university funds. Right now, we have a project that is happening in Africa.

Rita: In Zimbabwe.

Mirthell: The way the pandemic is affecting them is unique, as well as some of the political issues. We are working with a foundation to help. We’re constantly looking for ways to give back to our local community as well as abroad.

Rita: Just last night, one of my daughters came in and said: “Mom, can I have the card?” We call it the ‘giving card’ or the ‘charity card.’ It’s connected to that account, and they know to just get the card. They are always looking for opportunities to give. We do it intentionally every week, but also, we just do it when we see it. We just think it’s very important to give back.

(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Fern Siegel)

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PROFILE: This Black Pilot Is Inspiring The Next Generation Of Aviators Of Color

PROFILE: This Black Pilot Is Inspiring The Next Generation Of Aviators Of Color

NEW YORK — After their ancestors looked up to the skies in hope of freedom, one man is inspiring the next generation of African-American aviators.

Promoting diversity and inclusion, Courtland Savage and his North Carolina-based nonprofit Fly For The Culture has come a long way since its inception three years ago. The nonprofit has made it its mission to introduce minority youth to aviation through a set, self-paced curriculum designed to inspire. While Savage was successful in his aviation career, he doesn’t want the military to be the only option for others.

He continued to ask: What happens after we take a young person up for the first time?

via @flyfortheculture Instagram: We appreciate you @d_walt_loading keep grinding for those hours my boy! 

On average, costs to obtain a pilot’s license or certificate can top $80,000. But partnering with aviation giants, such as American Airlines, could be a solution. The company offers cadet academy programs for young people who don’t have the finances to pay for pilot training.

Fly For The Culture has already started to nurture a relationship with the airline company. Last year, American Airlines gave students of West Charlotte High School access to its state-of-the-art training facility. Furthering the nonprofit’s mission to promote diversity and inclusion in aviation, aspiring aviation pilots learned throughout the tour about the various vital roles that Science, Technology, Engineering, Aviation and Mathematics (STEAM) professionals play in the world of air transport.

“I’ve read if you can get a young person started with flight school at 18, by the time they’ve retired as an airline pilot, they’ve made $8 million throughout their career. That $80,000 to $100,000 investment doesn’t sound bad at the end of the day,” Savage said.

For young blacks, minorities and women, flying can be an escape from the dark realities that exist on the ground. When asked what it feels like to look at the world from a higher perspective, Dazha Austin, a Fly For The Culture intern who wants to work within the NTSB space of aviation to help prevent aircraft crashes, had something special to share.

“It’s a moment of bliss. It feels like you’re untouchable. You’re on top of the world,” Austin said.

via @dazhamone Instagram: “I’m the captain now” ALPHApilot  

“It’s annoying down here,” said Romello Walters, another intern at Fly For The Culture who is a pilot currently obtaining the rest of his ratings to fly for the airlines.

He noted that the acts of police brutality and racial injustice that are constantly in the news can be stressful, adding that “flying” to another space can help calm nerves.

“You’re able just to really be free at some point in time, even if it’s for an hour. All the problems are under me, literally, and I’m just able to focus on what I’m doing right now. … It’s like watching the sunset sometimes; that’s how it feels for me,” he said.

Savage’s community of young aviators is growing, and the love for aviation is too.

“We are able to literally show these kids we look like them, and we’re doing something that’s very much possible,” Walters said. “It’s more than just you as the individual; we have to stop thinking that way. It’s a community of people, and we’re all here to help each other.”

via @melloutfam Instagram: Old head once told me if you can’t fly it with 2 fingers you’re doing it wrong. I’ve been two piecing it ever since

Posts from Fly for The Culture’s cadets continue to flood Instagram feeds, all in an effort to push the mission further. The trend is becoming more real every day as more and more black icons take to the skies. Scrolling through the nonprofit’s Instagram feed, pictures and videos of celebrities, heroes and influencers in the cockpit serve as inspirational thumb-stopping content.

“Believe it or not, I like flying in my smaller plane than my other one. The Baron is like riding in a sports car,” comedian Lil Duval said in one Instagram post.

via @flyfortheculture Instagram: @lilduval The streets needed this. Photo by: @richbrokeair

The future of aviation looks a little more colorful, thanks to this budding organization. In closing, Savage had one last piece of advice from his father for aspiring pilots of color.

“Anything you see them white boys do, you can do that, too. You’ve got 10 toes and 10 fingers just like they do. … You can do anything you put your mind to as long as you try. No one out there is better than you. If they can do it, you can do it, he said.”

(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Carlin Becker)

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Rhythm And Blues: Despite The Pandemic, Musicians Find Novel Ways To Reach An Audience

Rhythm And Blues: Despite The Pandemic, Musicians Find Novel Ways To Reach An Audience

The pandemic has wreaked havoc in many industries, including music.

Many guitarists, pianists, violinists, drummers, and even singers, lost their livelihood as their income depended entirely on live performances.

Although the COVID-19 outbreak has generated a wave of unemployment at an unprecedented global level, it has also allowed thousands of people to demonstrate their ability to adapt.

Despite obstacles to overcome, musicians have not stopped playing, using their creativity to continue their artistry.

Some share their talent through social media. Some offer private concerts by video call, charging a lower fee than live events. Others keep practicing, so they do not lose their ability or desire to play. Their neighbors, who are also isolated, get to enjoy their afternoons with music in the air.

But the struggle has been difficult, despite the optimism and perseverance.

“Our presentations plummeted and with them, our income. Even so, we have not wavered,” said Rafael Santos Zamorano, director of the ‘Quinteto Mocambo,’ a Mexican group whose music has enjoyed national and international recognition.

Members of Quinteto Mocambo serenade the Virgin of Guadalupe in December. They say the frequency of their performances has plummeted. (Christian Valera Rebolledo/Café Words)

Music: a ray of light during tough times

The pandemic has been a hard blow for many, who have had to change their plans suddenly.

“There is no doubt the pandemic has hit us hard, we have been able to do so little work, and from there, we have had to reflect on our future,” said Santos Zamorano.

To survive, musicians of all kinds have shared their talents through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, going viral with fragments of popular songs or original pieces.

Another option is to share covers, since it shows respect for old songs, reinventing old classics for newer generations. For some, having new versions of their favorite songs can be enriching.

In neighborhoods around the world with terraces or balconies, artists choose certain times each week to rehearse. People do not ask them to leave. On the contrary, they ask them to continue to play, as they bring normalcy to a troubled world.

Musicians have had to find creative new ways to make it through the pandemic. Some play to keep people in good spirits. (Carlos Coronado/Unsplash)

In Mexico, people have made videos where they sing, at the top of their lungs from their rooftops, songs like ‘Ramito de Violetas,’ or ‘Resistiré México,’ as an anthem of resistance, strength and power.

Despite the struggle, many musicians continue to foster their talent. They know they can entertain and transmit peace to society through their lyrics and music.

Hundreds of festivals have been broadcasted online to remind people they can still enjoy performances without fear of crowds and contagion.

Musicians accept that sacrifices are sometimes necessary for the good of all.

“We have hope nowadays with the vaccines, but it is coming at a slow pace. It is a survival situation where we must all take care of ourselves, even if it entails losses,” said Santos Zamorano.

Several groups managed to organize and raise awareness about the importance of staying at home, with songs or positive messages from their digital profiles.

Musicians in Cuba, Spain, Mexico and Canada have set the example with new compositions and projects that capitalize on creativity, talent and the desire to make music.

They have produced their new songs at home, creating simple videos of excellent quality to sustain their art.

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez. Edited by Fern Siegel.)

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Former UPS Executive Boosts Pledge To Alma Mater By $15 Million

Former UPS Executive Boosts Pledge To Alma Mater By $15 Million

BALTIMORE — To help students avoid crippling college debt, former United Parcel Service executive and Morgan State University alumnus Calvin Tyler is increasing his $5 million commitment to his alma mater by $15 million to fund academic scholarships.

The expanded Calvin and Tina Tyler Endowment Scholarship Fund, created in 2002 to offer scholarships for Baltimore students, will now be used to attract students from around the country to a university eager to distinguish itself as a premier research institution, the university recently announced.

“A lot of young people in Baltimore and throughout the country are in need of help right now,” said Tyler. “Putting them further in debt through the reliance on government loans is just not the answer. Getting a college degree and graduating without debt is something that we think is very important.”

Tyler Hall, the recently constructed student services building on Morgan’s campus, stands as a legacy of Calvin and Tina Tyler’s “legacy of philanthropic giving.” (Courtesy of Morgan State University)

Student demographics suggest that nearly every Morgan student will, in the form of partial or full tuition scholarships, be impacted by the increased funds. Of the approximately 8,000 students currently attending the university, 90 percent receive some type of financial assistance.

“Forty-five percent qualify for Pell Grants, federal assistance to support students, at various level based on family support, and about 30 percent of that 45 percent are eligible for maximum benefits,” said Morgan State President David Wilson. “Thousands of students will be impacted for decades and decades to come.”

Wilson said he “literally dropped the phone” when the Tylers informed him that they wanted to raise their commitment to the university.

“When I was having the conversation with Calvin, and he said that he and Tina wanted to make a larger investment, I went quiet, because he doesn’t think in increments of a million dollars,” said Wilson. “We talked about the impact of COVID-19 in the community they come from and how it’s stressful under normal circumstances, and now students have to do three times more. He told me they wanted to do everything they can to ease the loan burden, so students could taste the magic of a Morgan State University education.”

“My wife and I have become keenly aware of the effect that the pandemic has had on a number of young people trying to get an education,” said Tyler. “We have the resources to help a lot of young people … through our endowed scholarship plan. It’s not so much that we’re supporting Morgan, it’s more that we are supporting Baltimore … Baltimore is our hometown, it’s where we’re from.”

Forced to drop out of Morgan in 1963 due to a lack of money to complete his own degree in business administration, Tyler became one of the first 10 black drivers for UPS in 1964. He closed out his career with the package delivery company as senior vice president of operations, retiring in 1998 and taking a seat on its board of directors. Tyler’s company stock options and board compensations make up the bulk of his benefactor’s wealth, according to Wilson.

“Calvin was a hard worker who has made his money work for him,” Wilson said. “He didn’t come up through diversity programs or human resources, though no slight on those organizations. At one point, he was literally the chief operating officer for a major corporation.”

Calvin Tyler began his career as one of 10 black UPS drivers before retiring as senior vice president for operation at UPS in 1988. Now a UPS director, his endowment fund has help more than 200 Morgan State University students through 46 full tuition and 176 partial scholarships. (Courtesy of Morgan State University)

Morgan’s emergence as a top research university

Morgan State University has a long history as one of four historically black colleges and universities in Maryland. Founded as Centenary Biblical Institute in 1867 to train young men in the ministry, it was renamed Morgan College in 1890 in honor of Rev. Lyttleton Morgan, its first trustee board chairman.

The school remained a private institution until 1939, when it was purchased by the state to provide more opportunities for black residents. In 1975, the school gained university status and expanded its offerings to include several doctoral programs.

Today, Morgan has 12 colleges, schools and institutes, with curricula that includes liberal arts, engineering, architecture and planning, social work, global journalism and communications. In 2007, by virtue of its growth among doctoral-granting institutions, Morgan was classified as “doctoral research institution” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Ten years later, the university was designated by the Maryland General Assembly as the state’s “preeminent public urban research university.”

Together with Bowie State University, Coppin State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University is an engine that drives both the state and national economies, according a United Negro College Fund report, “HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” released in 2017. Maryland HBCUs, said the report, generate $1 billion in total economic impact and account for more than 9,300 jobs and $9.5 billion in lifetime earnings among its graduates.

With the Tyler endowment, the largest private donation from an alumnus in university history, and a $40 million gift in 2020 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, Morgan State is now reaping the benefits of a reputation that was decades in the making.

“These investments show what we’ve known all along,” Wilson said. “Morgan is a serious institution that is turning out the best talent in the country in a period of immense innovation. Philanthropists are buying into the notion that, if they want a significant return on their investment, Morgan is the first option to consider.”

“MacKenzie Scott was vetting us from afar, the Tylers were vetting us from up close because Dr. Wilson has been able to establish a great relationship with them,” said Donna Howard, Morgan State’s vice president for institutional advancement. “But both gifts show that we passed muster as they considered their giving. These two gifts show them to be deeply embedded in altruism and wanting their wealth to have a positive and transformational impact on our students, their families and our communities.”

(Edited by Carlin Becker and Matthew B. Hall)

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Fifteen Years After Hanging Up His Gloves, Mark Johnson Still Fighting For Respect

Fifteen Years After Hanging Up His Gloves, Mark Johnson Still Fighting For Respect

Washington, D.C. native Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson epitomizes Black history during a month when we remember historic African-American figures and their accomplishments.

Johnson achieved greatness inside the boxing ring. He became the first African-American fighter to win a world title at both flyweight (112 pounds) and super flyweight (115 pounds). He capped an illustrious 16-year career with a record of 44 wins and 5 losses, with 28 of those wins coming via knockout.

A slick southpaw known for his elusive style and defensive prowess, Johnson often made opponents miss and he made them pay. Johnson typically pounced on mistakes made by his opponents. He earned his alias “Too Sharp” by wasting few punches and making every shot thrown count.

In 2012, he would reach the pinnacle of the boxing world when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the greatest “little guys” to ever lace up a pair of boxing gloves.

Zenger News caught up with Johnson to discuss his ascension from amateur to pro, why he felt he was blackballed by the sport and why he didn’t feel validated until his Hall of Fame induction.

Percy Crawford interviewed Mark Johnson for Zenger News.

Zenger News: I wanted to go back to your amateur career and how you got started in boxing.

Johnson: I got into boxing… my brother was one of the top flyweights in the world – James Harris. He lost to Paul Gonzalez in the ’84 Olympic Trials, Michael Carbajal in the ’88 Olympic Trials and Eric Griffin in the ’92 Trials. Me and my brother was real tight, even though we were five years apart. That’s what got me into boxing. Coming up at the age of 14 and 15, I won the Junior Olympics twice. In the Junior Olympics, I beat Tim Austin. Both of us had won it the year before, so I beat Tim Austin the second year.  At the age of 16, I won the Golden Gloves. I beat Tim Austin and Eric Griffin in ’88 to go to the Olympic Trials. I was the youngest fighter in the Olympic Trials at the age of 15 years old. Me and my brother was at the same weight class, 106 pounds. Both of us got to the semifinals; I lost to Eric Griffin. He tested positive for a banned substance, and they were supposed to reinstate me to fight the winner of my brother and Michael Carbajal. But of course, with the politics of USA Boxing, they said they wasn’t going to give us the opportunity to do it two times. My brother lost to Michael Carbajal, and Carbajal went to the ’88 Trials.

Percy Crawford interviewed Mark Johnson for Zenger News. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Zenger: Was it difficult to make the decision to go pro, and what made you decide to turn pro when you did?

Johnson: It was a tough decision. When I was rated No. 1 in the world, USA Boxing never called me for the Goodwill Games, never called me for the World Games. … They never called me for nothing. So, I felt like I was being blackballed. As the No.1 guy, they never called me for nothing. I turned pro, and my first fight I beat a guy that I had beat in the amateurs. My second fight, I lost to Richie Wenton from Belfast, Ireland. And Wenton went on to fight Marco Antonio Barrera. But yeah, I lost my second professional fight to Wenton.

Zenger: As a top amateur, to lose your second fight as a pro is unheard of, even though Wenton was a 5-0 fighter at the time. How did you overcome that and become a Hall of Fame fighter?

Johnson: I knew that just getting the right fights at the right time and just building the confidence back up – which is what we have to do with a lot of young fighters now – I knew that would get me right back. Once I got to 10-11 wins in a row, that’s when I was ready to go to the L.A. Forum. My first fight at the L.A. Forum, they didn’t even pay me. I paid my own way to the L.A. Forum. I paid for my own hotel. They didn’t even pay me for the fight. So, I knew that getting on the West Coast was the best thing for me. Also, when I came right back to L.A. for the second fight, I knew they would try to get me beat. I fought the No. 2 contender, Raton Jimenez. He had just lost to Muangchai Kittikasem for the WBC title. And I never went past six rounds. And they thought they were throwing me to the wolves; however, they were throwing him to the wolves. They didn’t know how good I was. I knew if I could just go 12 rounds, then I would be one of the top guys in the weight class.

Zenger: The highlight reels now suggest that you were this elusive defensive wizard and you were that – but I feel you were so much more than that.

Johnson: I think I was a boxer-puncher. I feel like I could pretty much do everything in the ring. That’s why Cameron Dunkin, when he managed Danny Romero, I was Danny Romero’s No. 1 contender. He made Danny Romero give the belt up. I was Johnny Tapia’s No. 1 contender; he gave the belt up. I was No. 2 in the world in ’93 and didn’t get a title shot till ’96. So, that’s the politics of boxing when it came to Mark Johnson.

Zenger: You are the first African-American flyweight and super flyweight champion in the history of the sport. Did you know that when you were accomplishing those things or was it something you learned after the fact?

Johnson: I knew because I used to spar with Louis “Heidi” Curtis. He fought for the IBF title like two or three times. “Heidi” Curtis had fought Dave McAuley for the IBF title on the same show that I lost to Richie Wenton, so I started doing my homework right then and there. And I said, “You know what, this is what I wanna do!”

Zenger: Why do you think there is a shortage of African-American fighters in those lower divisions that you competed in? Do you think it’s just our bone structure and density or something else?

Johnson: I think our bone structure is different. I think now, we have a lot of great fighters in those lower weight classes, 122 on up. I think they have a lot of great young African-American fighters now. I tell all of ’em, as long as you can box and move, you got a great chance. If you can’t box and move, it’s going to be very difficult.

Zenger: What does it mean to you to have those landmarks of being the first African-American champion in those weight classes?

Johnson: Well, you know, to me, I don’t understand it and I don’t feel it because I’m from a city that don’t respect you for nothing. So, I think once things start to move forward, probably next year when I’m getting stuff into the African American Smithsonian Museum, then people will understand. But right now, with the pandemic going on, everything is messed up. I don’t want to be that guy, that unsung hero where everyone praises me when I’m gone. Praise me now. Not only have I accomplished the things that you mentioned, but I’m also the youngest fighter to go into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. These are accolades that fighters would die to have, and we have had fighters that lost their lives in the ring trying to get ’em. So, I’m very proud of the accomplishments that I have, but like I said, once again, coming from certain towns, certain cities, they don’t respect you for nothing.

Zenger: That’s crazy considering that the DMV is a boxing town. It’s crazy you don’t get the respect you deserve.

Johnson: I mean you gotta understand one thing, you had Sharmba Mitchell, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, [DeMarcus] “Chop Chop” Corley and Mark Johnson, all had world championships at the same time, as small as this city is. Even though Holmes and Joppy were promoted by Don [King], even with “Chop Chop” and Sharmba being promoted by Don, those fights should’ve happened.

Zenger: When you look at Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson’s career, would you say, underrated, underappreciated or do you feel like your time in the light just hasn’t arrived yet to get the credit you deserve?

Johnson: I say underrated, underappreciated. If I would’ve fought Michael Carbajal, if I would’ve fought [Humberto] ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez when I told ‘Chiquita’ that if he won his fight, we would meet at 110, that I would beat him and I would give him his belts back. And he said he would fight me and that night, he lost to Saman Sorjaturong at the Forum. When Danny Romero and Johnny Tapia fought, I was there. I had a sign in the audience that said, “Can I Play? Can I Get Next?” They made me take the sign down. So, everything that they did to African- American smaller fighters – HBO and Showtime – they didn’t do to Latino fighters and fighters that came from overseas because they knew that African-Americans – we want to get paid for the work that we do. A lot of those guys were just taking pennies on the dollar. At that point in time, I would’ve took pennies on the dollar to get the right fights. I think if I would’ve gotten the right fights, then of course, Mark Johnson would be a household name. I know for a fact I would’ve beat Carbajal. I would’ve beaten all them guys. I tried to fight Scotty Olson. The list goes on and on of the guys that turned me down.

Zenger: How frustrating was that for you?

Johnson: I was very frustrated. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to box anymore. It got to the point where I said I was done with boxing. And just like every other frustrated athlete, sometimes people pick up drugs, sometimes people pick up guns; sometimes people pick up other things. Just so happened that I picked up the bottle. I was able to put the bottle down and get back and win another world title. But I was very frustrated because I knew those guys couldn’t beat me. Floyd Mayweather was No. 1 pound-for-pound, Mark Johnson was No. 2 pound-for-pound and Prince [Naseem] Hamed was No. 3, I was even willing to go up to 126 to fight Hamed. I wanted that fight. I was like, “I’ll fight him.” I went up so far, I wanted to fight Junior Jones. I was calling people out. Before Robert Guerrero and all those guys fought Mayweather, I was calling Robert Guerrero out when he beat a guy from D.C. named Eric Aiken. I was just to the point where I was so frustrated, I was calling everybody out. I was even sending out emails saying I would fight Roy Jones (laughing). I was very frustrated, and that kind of took a toll on me in the boxing ring.

Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson (center left) stands with Andre Johnson (left), his father Abraham “Ham” Johnson (right), and the legendary sports broadcaster, the late George Michael (center right). (Photo courtesy of Andre Johnson)

Zenger: What did that induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame mean to you?

Johnson: Ah man, that’s a feeling that you can never feel again. You’re on a high of a roller-coaster. You’re looking at the big boys. You’re right there with Sugar Ray Leonard who was there, Terry Norris, Roy Jones, all those guys was there. I was finally like, “These guys really do know me.” Even though Roy was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team, Ray Mercer was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team, Kevin Kelley was on my ’88 Olympic Trials Team. I think ’88 may have had more medals than anybody. Kennedy McKinney was on that team. Just to see those guys right there congratulating me … I finally felt like I was the President that day. You get on the plane and they wish you in and everybody standing outside with their cameras and they got the rail, I said, “This is how this feels?” I felt very good, man. It was just so great.

Zenger: You were so special in the ring, it’s sad it took that day to make you feel like you belonged.

Johnson: I look at it like, at the end of the day, when you’re dealing with so many different things, and dealing with your career, and you’re trying to work on different things that you’re trying to work on. And you look at these guys who you know that you really can beat, and you see these guys on HBO and Showtime, and you’re saying, “Just give me that opportunity and that chance,” and that opportunity and that chance came when Mark Johnson was not the real Mark Johnson. When I got in there with Rafael Marquez and those guys, I was just Mark Johnson, there was no more “Too Sharp.”

That’s one thing that I can say about Floyd. With the money he had, he was able to go out on his shield with no losses. And that’s the money that he raised because of what he done. A lot of guys like me and other world champions, we’re still not making the money that we should have made. So once again, we need that next fight. We gotta fill that hunger and we miss that spotlight. I think the main thing for me is, I work with a lot of fighters from the DMV. I train fighters, I’m back in the gym. I do my personal training, so I think a lot of that is what keeps me intact. But every world champion, and I don’t care if they say they don’t, if they say they don’t, they are telling a story. Every time you see a good fight come on, you jump up and you say, “I can do this.” Every time you see a good fight, you jump up and you start shadowboxing. I know I jump up and start shadowboxing. It’s like, who can I call and get on one of these Mike Tyson exhibitions (laughing).

(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Matthew B. Hall)

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