Even amid summer’s splendor, it’s no surprise that July is a difficult month for Mercedes Martinez.
The singer-songwriter is best known as a Jazzyfatnastee, co-creator of Philly’s iconic Black Lily showcase and now as the widow of Rich Nichols, the famously spotlight-allergic brainboss of The Roots. A proud son of Philadelphia, Nichols’s radical inventiveness helped elevate everything from the superband’s overall steeze and slate of sonic masterworks to notable projects by Al Green, Al Jarreau, Elvis Costello and Erykah Badu (and that’s just a sampling). Nichols went back to the essence on July 17, 2014 after losing a dogged three-year battle with leukemia. His passing left a crater in Martinez’s spirit that she’s tried to fill with some semblance of normalcy since returning to Los Angeles in February of 2015, carting herself and their son back to her family’s protective embrace.
Thankfully Nichols, her great love, sowed seeds that’ve grown into a resonant legacy — one that is reflected in his friends’ smile-saturated memories of many a fiery debate and the enduring impressions his passionate treatises left on them. He was a man of principle and purpose, a cat who said what he meant and meant what he said. And he walked his talk, channeling creative and financial resources toward novel ideas like the BlackStar Film Festival, which turns six early next month, just one of numerous independent projects, businesses and initiatives blessed by Nichols’s genius and generosity.
“There’s so much about BlackStar that might not exist if I hadn’t met him,” says fest founder Maori Karmael Holmes, who added Nichols’s moniker to its illustrious Luminary Award after his death. “Even though he’s not [necessarily] associated with film, he contributed in many ways, definitely to our broader culture, but also specifically to independent film.” On Saturday, Aug. 5, Ava DuVernay will become the next cinematic innovator to receive BlackStar Film Festival’s Richard Nichols Luminary Award; past recipients include Howard University and Haile Gerima, Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, dream hampton and Julie Dash.
In selecting a Richard Nichols Luminary Award winner each year, Holmes told Indie-Life, BlackStar seeks “to honor a person, collective or organization that embodies the qualities the festival is promoting: rigor, curiosity, aesthetic integrity and love for Black people.” Ask anyone who knew its namesake, and they’ll tell you Nichols embodied those attributes among many others. His unabashed brilliance was only matched by his immense talent — as a manager, producer, musician and mixer — and by his abiding devotion to the tight circle of friends and kin who adored and sustained him.
Martinez, naturally, was his biggest fan, loudest cheerleader and closest creative co-conspirator. In this in-depth conversation about Nichols and their life together — her first since his passing — she opens up about how the two navigated the dynamics of their life and work partnerships, his hand in bringing the mighty Black Lily to life, why he avoided the spotlight and how his mantra — Do it for the love of it — is drawing her back to what ultimately brought them together: Music.
INDIE-LIFE: How did you and Rich meet?
MERCEDES MARTINEZ: Rich and I met somewhere around probably ‘95 in L.A. [The Roots] were doing, I think, Lollapalooza. At the time, the Jazzies were four members, and a couple of the girls had actually met Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson, The Roots’ drummer], who had heard about my brother, John, and his work with The Pharcyde on their first album. Long story short, they invited us to hang out and ride along with them on that particular tour. I’m sure Rich was around. I don’t remember too many impressions of Rich initially, other than he seemed slightly menacing, but he was cool. And that was kind of that.
Shortly after, The Roots asked us to come to Philly and do some vocal stuff in exchange for them doing some production stuff with us, and that’s how we wound up going to Philly initially. And we did that. Then at the end of working on that project, the Jazzies decided that they were going to move to Philly permanently to continue working with The Roots [and Rich]. I wasn’t prepared to move. About a year of that went by, and then one of the girls [from the group] gave me a call and said, “Hey, Merce, how would you feel about coming back?” At that point, I was sick of trying to do it on my own, and I missed singing harmonies; I missed the whole group dynamic, having people to bounce off of — so I said, “Of course I’d like to come back.”
My first interaction with Rich on a one-on-one thing — and he would always remember this from time to time during our relationship — how he asked me out to breakfast, and I went and met him. Basically, he was like, What are your intentions? Apparently, there had been drama and different things going on with the group while I was gone and factions starting; you know how a group can be. And he just wanted to know what I was trying to bring to the mix. So I said, “Look, you know I’ve been a part of this group from the beginning, and I thought I might be better off doing it on my own, but I realized I loved the group, and I wanted to come back.” I was just trying to come back and be about that. That’s it. He sized me up and was like, “Alright, you’re cool.” So, that was kinda that.
IL: Had he been managing the JazzyFatNastees the entire time?
MM: Yeah. During that year, shortly after I left, they went to him and asked if he would agree to manage them. He saw potential in what we had been doing, but it was a very sort of … you know, we had a very hip-hop approach to how we did our stuff — we all were songwriters, we would all each write our own verses and do our own kinda thing. We had a lot of potential, but it needed to be a bit more organized. We needed to work on song structure and actually learning to create songs that were more song-like and rhyme-like. He was very instrumental in putting us “in the lab,” so to speak. That’s what eventually led to doing jam sessions, which eventually led to the Black Lily, et cetera, et cetera.
How did your romantic relationship develop?
I came back to the group in November of ’96, and then we spent ’97 trying to work on more material and figure out the whole group dynamic. It turned out that things didn’t work out for us as a foursome. Eventually, it was a trio by the time ’97 came around, and it wound up just being a duo — it was just Tracey [Moore] and I. And that was ’98. I remember that Rich, Tracey and I met together, and we were like, OK, now it’s just the two of us; what does this mean? Are we still doing this? He still believed in the concept and actually felt it would probably be easier just managing two visions instead of four. So we decided, “Yeah, we’re gonna set it straight in ’98.” That was our slogan. And our first album came out in ’99, so we managed to get it figured out and actually put out an album.
In the meantime, you know, Rich and I became closer. We were friends, and, you know, friends enough for me to tell him about people that I was dating and what was going on. I would tell him about my boyfriend at the time, and he would give his advice about guys and this and that — you know, like “Dudes are crazy” — stuff like that. What I remember in particular was that we were repainting and cleaning up Ahmir’s house, which was something that would have to be done every so often— just so many people went through there and stayed there—and one time, it was just him and I that were doing it, and it took like two or three days to get it done. During that time, we just continued to talk, continued to grow closer, you know. I was not with the person that I [had been] with anymore. We were talking about relationships, and I was talking about the kind of relationship that I would want. Then he was just like, “Well, I would like to, you know, maybe see if we could have a relationship.” I was just kinda surprised, like, What? Um, okay.
The thing about it was that we knew each other at that point. I felt safe, with [our friendship], and all of a sudden, “Hmm, maybe we could be more.” Obviously that wasn’t an initial thing when I first met him; that wasn’t even a thought. But I was like, Well, maybe it could work. I certainly admired so many things about him already. And I knew that it would cause some drama, so if he was willing to do something that might potentially rock the whole boat of the collective, then I knew he had to feel pretty certain of where he was coming from. Because we were friends, I already knew the whole backstory of the years that he’d spent on the road and the things that they’d done, and he was older — 11 years older than me — so he’d already been through all that stuff and was tired of all that stuff. He was at a place where it was, like, the right person coming along at the right time. And vice versa. So, that was kind of the start of it.
And, you know, it jangled people a little bit, but eventually, everyone was like, OK, I guess this is serious. That was it from that point. That was March of ’98, and we were pretty much together from then on. And then we had a commitment ceremony in July of 2000, on July 27th. It was a commitment between us, and in front of our friends, to be partners.
IL: That was part of your and his philosophy on marriage?
MM: Yes, and anyone who was at the wedding will tell you that his whole vow to me was about how much he was anti- and not a believer in marriage. In fact, the literal quote was, “I don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in me and you.” Everyone was just like, “Awww!” For everyone to see Richard up there doing that, it was definitely like, Wow, he must really mean what he’s saying and saying what he means. Yeah, he definitely had a lot of views that people would be like What? And marriage, traditional marriage, was definitely one of them. But he was not anti-partnership; he was pro-partnership. And that’s what we wound up building. I mean, the same way with kids. He was like, “Why do people have kids? Do you realize how terrible the environment is? What are you doing? Do you realize what that might do to your career?” Blah, blah, blah. But in terms of Rakim coming along? I was in a place where we put out our first album, and we started doing the Lily, and obviously, you hope as many people as possible listen to your music and be exposed to it — you know, everybody wants to be a star — but it didn’t quite work out the way we thought and hoped that it would. In the meantime, I was also feeling the biological clock ticking, so I thought, You know, I think I might have a kid. For all the reasons that I stated before, he was like, I don’t know, but I pretty much
was like, “Okay, I understand your feelings, but this is what I want to do. You can either be down with this or not be down with this.” And he chose to be down with it, so we have our kid!
IL: What year was Rakim born?
MM: He was born in 2002.
IL: How was it working with your life partner in your career? Did it make things easier or more difficult? How did you find that relationship developing?
MM: We had a great creative relationship. He was also a beat-maker and a producer, so now, we had the ability to just spend hours working … My brother Pedro and I and Richard worked on a lot of stuff together. He wasn’t always the easiest person to work with because he definitely had his vision of things, and there would be endless debates sometimes — and boy, could Rich debate. He just would not let things go! So, sometimes, we would get into it. But really, creatively, we were in line. I think the tough parts are when you don’t necessarily experience the results that you’d hoped you would experience. Just being an artist and going through your feelings and your ego. You see other people do different things, and you’re like, Why isn’t that working for me? That can be kind of tough. But usually, whatever things that he envisioned, [I was like] Yeah, that’s a great idea. If he had nothing else, he had tons of great ideas and so much knowledge about music and culture.
I definitely miss him.
IL: It comes up over and over again, people having so much to say about those conversations with Rich. It seems to be one of the things people cherish most: These deep, long, tangential and enlightening conversations. What was it about him that always sort of tapped into that deeper side of life?
MM: I think it was his deep curiosity about everything, really. People in particular: what makes them tick. Before the internet, he would carry around — everywhere he went and even when he traveled — a gym bag, like a tote bag, full of hardback books, 300-pagers some of them. He would constantly carry these around just so he could refer to them when he had a moment’s time: Let me read about this; let me read about that. So of course he loved it when the internet came along. He would just spend hours looking up this, looking up that. He had an extensive knowledge about so many different things. He enjoyed debating people. He enjoyed breaking down, like, OK, you think this; well, why do you think that? — just getting to the underbelly of things. And he had this great love of music and a real love of art. Particularly helping out people that he just saw talent in. That’s how, even before he hooked up with The Roots, he had already spent years working on beats and working with different artists near his West Philly neighborhood. Then he wound up meeting Scott Storch, mentoring him. He even lived at the house for a while; they worked on stuff together. [Rich] just had this razor sharp wit, which you’d love if it was pointed at somebody else. If it was pointed at you, you might not love it so much.
Another thing that’s come up over and over again is the phrase “the man behind the curtain.” What did that mean to him? What was his philosophy about his role?
Well, he had no interest in showing you how the sausage is made. His interest was just to magnify the artists that he was working with, to bring out the best in them. Funny enough, even though he was really bombastic at times and loud and all that, he would be the first person to tell you: Oh, I hate people. Oh, no, I don’t like dealing with people. I don’t like talking to people. He didn’t like getting pictures taken. He didn’t really like things too focused on him. He loved having a hand in things, and he loved thinking of new and different things to do to expand upon whatever the collective goal was. But he definitely never wanted to be the center of that. I think maybe had he lived, there were different things that he probably would have done just as Richard, including, maybe, writing. Who’s to say? But he was definitely all about just magnifying and building up those that he was working with.
IL: It wasn’t just music for him, right? He was working with Quest and his catering company and other things. Were there other things outside of music that he had a hand in?
MM: He definitely was part of working on the Questlove food project and sort of expanding Ahmir’s career in different directions. He was doing these panels with the Norman Lear Foundation.
Obviously, just losing him, period, makes me sad, but I also think about all the things and all the ideas that he had in him that he didn’t get to realize and what that would’ve been like. But, unfortunately, we had the [brief] time that we wound up having. There were times that I wondered, What if it had been me instead of him? Would the world have been better off, since he had so much to give? But that’s kind of useless. Because that’s not what happened.
IL: In one of the articles about the catering, Rich mentioned something about how, the endgame is not to sell fried chicken — it’s to do something larger that would involve a number of projects and make sense for how people perceive the brand. Is that something that he also tried to infuse into the Jazzyfatnastees? How did you guys adopt that philosophy or utilize that idea?
MM: Well, for us, he definitely would talk about longevity, as well as creativity. That’s how the whole Black Lily thing came about: Because of our having that first budget and figuring out that that little $50,000 wasn’t really gonna go too far if we just decided to do a couple of little shows. Why not reinvest that, work on building yourself as a performer and also give a platform to others trying to do the same thing — then perhaps actually eking out a career besides from just selling records? He would always talk about how it’s a lottery really, and most people don’t win it. So, it was about “work on your performance, work on investing in who you are as an artist, and do it for the love most of all.” Don’t do it for the things. Don’t do it for the money — because most people don’t win the Lotto. You better be doing it because you love it and you’re inspired.
IL: What was his vision for music in Philadelphia?
MM: I don’t know if it was Philadelphia specifically as much as it was just a reflection of his love of music in general and black music and culture in particular. I think he felt like investing in artists and their creativity and their performance skills contributed to continuing the legacy of black music, of black creativity.
IL: Why do you think he didn’t take that elsewhere? Why Philly?
MM: First of all, he was born and bred in —and loved — Philly. I think that Philly is easier because, as an artist, it was easier to live there. It was cheaper to live there than in New York, and yet New York is still a stone’s throw away — you can jump on a train or a bus and be there in a couple of hours. And that’s an international situation. When you have a place where people can actually afford to live and afford to gather, that’s just a natural progression, so I think that’s what it was about for him. It was about teaching, encouraging artists that he believed in, [helping them focus] their talent to continue figuring out how they could tap into that talent. And just for their own well-being. He always underscored that there’s only gonna be one Jay-Z, one Kanye, one Beyoncé, so that shouldn’t be your goal. It’s not about being Beyoncé; it’s about being you and tapping into that and building your skills. And it’s like, Are you gonna be able to do it? Can you do it?
That’s why repetition was such a big part of it. It’s not like putting on one show, then that’s it. It’s over time, building an awareness, building an audience. He had come from loving these big groups of the ‘70s when they had bands, bands, bands and had seen that sort of shrink. So it’s weird that he ended up working with The Roots, who’ve gotten bigger and bigger and bigger over the years. He was just really a lover of the culture and the music. He was really invested in people. As much as he was known for cursing people out and eviscerating people in email, he was very loved because there was a genuine caring there. If he cared enough to curse you out, he probably cared enough — and, like I said, he wouldn’t let an argument lie. He’d make you sit there and talk it out for hours and hours until you were cool. And that’s just the level of caring you got. Sometimes it got on your last nerve, but you knew that he cared if he even bothered to spend that kind of time and energy.
IL: How did the Black Lily brand expand from the original showcase?
MM: We connected with Maori Holmes, and she was working on the whole concept of doing a film festival in Philadelphia. It was like, Well, what if we did the Black Lily Film and Music Festival?
2005 is when the Black Lily in Philly ended officially, and that was because we were actually funding this whole event, from its inception until the last. I think when people have something, and they know that it’s every Tuesday, you kind of get used to it, you start taking it for granted … Next thing you know, the audience is diminishing, and it’s like, What are we doing here? Maybe it’s time to move on. We decided to try and go at it from a different angle. Then, in 2007, Maori approached us, like What if we did a film and music festival and kind of put it together? We were like, Yeah, that would be a great idea. So what we did is just go mine our resources, so to speak, and hit up people who had been involved in the past. Luckily enough, Ahmir had done some things with Amy Winehouse and was working with her; we were fortunate enough to get her to come out and be a part of it. It just wound up being an unforgettable, not-to-be-duplicated kind of concert. Our idea from there was to maybe see if we could do it on a yearly basis.
I think we ran into a couple of [issues] because we really wanted it to be a women’s thing, a women-in-arts thing, and in the whole idea of marketing it, people [were] like, Well, who is the audience for it? If you guys are called Black Lily, then let’s make it a Black thing. Then we could market specifically to black women. We could have hair products … that kind of thing. But we were talking about music. When we went around to get funding in 2008, we found that as successful as it was, and with all the publicity it got, it didn’t really translate to dollars.
IL: And was that because it was a black thing?
MM: I think that it was confusing to people that we didn’t want it to just be seen as a black thing. And sponsors, they want to know specifically; they get into specific audiences. That’s kind of what we ran into. And it was an expensive thing to put on. So we decided, Well, we’re not gonna move forward with that, but we did some workshops around it. During the event, we did the girls’ thing, and we applied and were given a 501C3 status, so it was always like we can continue to expand this in the future as we see fit. Maybe it’ll be in more of an educational, mentoring kind of realm. Yeah, that was the plan — like, Okay, we’re not gonna put the close on this forever, but we’ll kinda see where we take it from there. And life interceded in the meantime. We still have a connection with the BlackStar Film Festival, in terms of being partnered with them. They’re still putting on [that] festival, and that’s getting bigger and bigger.
In terms of Tracey and I personally and our involvement, you know … Richard started having some strange things happening health-wise in 2010. By July of 2011 — the 21st, I believe, was the date when we actually found out he was diagnosed with leukemia, and from that point, it just became a race to try to see if we could conquer that latest challenge. It became about that. Then, in 2013, while still going through the process of figuring out whether Richard’s first transplant was successful and what was gonna happen with that and [praying he] had really beat it, Tracey and I worked on the last project that we worked on together. We recorded a complete project, and Rich had some time after the project was done to try to see if we could get some interest — see if we could get some distribution happening — and nobody jumped on board. But we were proud of what we had done, and we still have that to do with what we will.
Then, quickly, [Rich and I] realized that things hadn’t panned out with what we thought would be a fix, and that we were gonna have to try it again with another transplant. And things just went awry after that.
Then we came to July 17, 2014.
Maori is presenting the Richard Nichols Luminary Award, and filmmaker Ava DuVernay is receiving it this year, which is wonderful. So, what you guys worked on, the effects of that, are still being felt in the BlackStar Film Festival. What do you think might be next for the Black Lily brand?
MM: Absolutely. I’m very proud of that, and of Maori and what she’s been able to do. In terms of Black Lily, now I’m in L.A., and I already have someone that we worked with, someone that Rich worked with very closely in New York, who’s anxious to do something like Black Lily in L.A. … L.A.’s a very different place from Philly, and there have been events like that that have been tried, so I definitely see that as something that we’ll do in the future — if not as a series, then maybe just as a one-off every once in a while, a Black Lily-themed kinda show.
IL: What inspired the move back to Los Angeles? How have you been spending your time?
MM: I moved back because as much as I love Philly, and I feel like I grew into a woman there — I came there as a single person and became partners, became a mom; it was wonderful — but it’s also full of memories and things that are hard. My family’s here [in L.A.], and I grew up out here, and for me, it just felt like the natural move, to sort of come full circle, to come back here. And it’s funny that Tracey wound up coming back here, too, before even I moved back.
There’s definitely a lot of time spent grieving but also just coming to terms with life, how things turned out. And just [be] like, What now? It’s wonderful to be five minutes away from my family and having all that support here. But not having someone who was my touchstone, my partner, my idea-person kind of pointing the way is a major thing. I can imagine what he would want me to do, and I can imagine based on who he was, the sorts of things that I think he would approve of and want me to get into, but it’s not the same as having him here to point the way and help guide me along. So I’m just trying to figure out who Merce is gonna be now, even as an artist.
Getting Rakim settled here was priority number one, just kinda getting my feet on solid ground, so to speak. And then I began the process of building up a studio in my garage so that I could get back to music because I feel that’s what Rich would want me to do. Again, for the love of it — just figuring out who I am, what I can contribute creatively, and just do that in order to continue to grow as a person.
IL: Is the studio complete?
MM: It is complete now. I just finished it, actually, this week. It feels great. [Now I’m] mining the connections that I had formed in Philly. Funny enough, so many people are here that were there, so that’s not a problem at all. But to be honest, part of me is like, Can I still write? The little nagging doubts that every artist experiences. And if I think about what Rich would say to that, he’d be like, “You gotta just do it, gotta get into it. You gotta just create.” That’s what he was doing, constantly creating, constantly learning.
IL: When you actually sit down to write a piece of music, do you feel like it’s like riding a bike? As you said, creatively, those nagging voices in your head are always there; we all face them as artists, and usually the build-up is worse than the actual doing it. Do you find that when you actually sit down to write, or get into the booth to sing, it’s just comes naturally again? How do you find the process creatively now?
MM: I feel like as a writer, it’s tougher because it’s so easy to get into a pattern where you’re critiquing stuff as you do it, and that’s kinda been a challenge, to work on that. But in terms of the singing part and the recording part, whenever I get back into the studio, I’m like “Ahhhhhh.” A feeling comes over me that’s like, I know this. I’m home here. So it’s very natural to me, and it’s very much like I kinda feel a click, and I’m there. I’m just interested in having more of that experience. I feel super-lucky to be in the position to even be able to think about creating like this, so I just really want to make the most of it and just really figure out my voice and what I have to say. Being an artist and having done it all this time and now being in the position that I’m in, and at this age, what do I have to say? Will that resonate with someone else that’s maybe in that same life stage? That remains to be seen. But my responsibility is just to get on it and put it out there in whatever way.
IL: As far as your personal process, are you really disciplined about it? Do you have a schedule, or how does it come to you?
MM: It’s more like lyrical things that come to me, so I just write stuff down when it comes to me. But I really do think that you have to have discipline about it. That’s the next phase. I just got an electric piano. I studied classical piano for nine years, from age nine to 18. But I want to help myself with writing, so now my thing is to set up a schedule, to get in there and know that I’m putting in my time every day at the piano and learning these chords. Eventually, yes, I’m gonna start doing shows and performing. But you gotta have rehearsals. You’ve got to just always be ready. That’s definitely what we did in the Black Lily days, rehearsing three times a week. You kind of have to put yourself on that [schedule] if you really want to see your flow, if you want to see real development. Now I feel like everything’s done acoustically, the studio’s ready, so that’s like Step Two: Get in there and do it. Nothing happens by just thinking about it.
IL: Clearly you want to get back to the stage, but do you also see yourself writing for other artists and placing your songs?
MM: Sure, I would love to do that! I think it’s certainly about being in a particular loop with people. I think it’s an interesting time in music in general. Rich was definitely, in the last years, decrying the state of black music. There used to be so much black music out, so much R&B, and you can see that it’s dwindled and dwindled, and different types of artists and music has taken over. I have to figure out what is me; I have to write songs from the place of Wow, that really speaks to me. Then, in terms of placement, it just has to be somebody that’s vibrationally matching with that. We’ll see if there are artists out there that relate to things that I’ve done. I have things that I’ve done in the past that I think could be usable for other artists. So, really, it’s just diving back out there.
What sort of newer black media do you like nowadays?
Well, I love Issa Rae’s show, “Insecure.” It’s awesome. “Atlanta” is awesome. I always understood that Beyoncé was a great artist, but I was never a huge fan — like, “Oh, I have all her albums” or anything. But when Lemonade came out, I was like, Whoa. Okay. This is a well-put together piece of art, for all the various reasons. And I’m very inspired by Kendrick Lamar. I think his last album is just amazing. I love Rihanna! I love Anti. Most of that album is great to me. She doesn’t do a whole bunch of writing, but she knows what works for her, and she always brings herself to it and it locks people in. I just try to be inspired by others’ creativity and think, Okay, how can I be more me and apply that to my own creativity and come up with something that others relate to? Be it a small faction of folk or big. That remains to be seen.
IL: You have all my blessings and all my love, and I wish you the absolute best.
MM: Thank you, thank you. We shall see. Moving forward! Moving forward, but always having Richard watching my back.
To learn more about leukemia or make a donation visit the Leukemia Research Foundation
Interview by Rafik
Words by Sheena Lester
Edited by Ellen Garrison
Photos & Video by Etienne Maurice