This weekend at the Roots Picnic, Jemele Hill gets to open for her favorite band.
“This really will be a dream come true,” says the ESPN commentator and columnist for sports and culture site The Undefeated. “The Roots are my favorite hip-hop group of all time.”
At the 11th annual Picnic at the Festival Pier on Penn’s Landing on Saturday, the Philadelphia hip-hop band led by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson will headline along with comedian Dave Chappelle and yet-to-be-named “special guests.”
Hill isn’t one of the musical opening acts — those include Philly mumble rap king Lil Uzi Vert, Brooklyn indie rockers Dirty Projectors, Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz, R&B star Brandy, North Philly emcee Tierra Whack, and free-jazz explorers the Sun Ra Arkestra, among others.
But the Picnic has been diversifying of late into broader cultural areas. This year there will be video game competitions, fashion pop-ups, and a Podcast Stage.
And there’s also a Lifestyle stage on which Hill is the star attraction. She’s on a Breaking Barriers panel that will feature such other high-profile women of color as Uber exec Bozoma Saint John and Roc Nation’s Chaka Pilgrim.
Hill’s profile grew exponentially last fall when she sparked controversy after she called President Trump a white supremacist on Twitter, was subsequently suspended by the network, and the White House called for her to be fired.
Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
Hill’s Roots fandom began when she was an intern for her hometown paper the Detroit Free Press in 1995. That same year, she also interned at the Philadelphia Inquirer and cowrote a front-page story about Grateful Dead fans holding a vigil at the Spectrum after Jerry Garcia died.
The Free Press music critic wasn’t a hip-hop fan, so he passed along a CD by a rising young Philadelphia band that he thought Hill might want to review. It was the Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??!, the early jazz-rap classic that features “Mellow My Man” and “I Remain Calm.”
“I gave it five stars,” she remembers. “Black Thought is one of my top five MCs of all time. I’ve seen them more than any other artist. I’ve always wanted to go to the Roots Picnic, but for whatever reason the timing was never good.”
Hill is stoked to see the Roots in their hometown. (Her five favorite song Roots songs, in no particular order: “The Next Movement,” “Star,” “What They Do, “Concerto of the Desperado,” and “You Got Me.” The presence of Chappelle and the hint of guest stars is tantalizing.
“Oh, if Jill Scott shows up,” Hill says. “She is probably my favorite R&B artist. Every time Chappelle gets together with them, it’s always something really special. I just can’t imagine it’s not going to live up to that. No pressure on the Roots, but I want this to be a lifelong memory.”
The Roots Picnic will be a nice respite for Hill, who was once again the target of White House ire yesterday when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders equated Hill’s tweet with Roseanne Barr’s recent racist comments about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Now that she was named National Association of Black Journalists’ 2018 journalist of the year, does she feel vindicated for speaking out about Trump in the face of harsh criticisms?
“I don’t feel vindicated, I don’t look at it in that regard,” Hill says, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, where she had talked hoops that day on the ESPN’s SportsNation. (She’s got Golden State in six in the NBA Finals: “I’m going to give Cleveland two games, just because [LeBron James] is a superhuman talent.”)
“I feel humbled more than anything because I’m fully aware of the long line of really prestigious journalists that I’ve admired who have won this award, from Soledad O’Brien to Roland Martin to April Ryan. People I really respect. It’s kind of mind-boggling that I’m now in that category.”
It was particularly meaningful for Hill, 42, “since it’s this organization that I joined when I was 16 years old,” when she wrote for the Mumford High School newspaper in Detroit. “I thought I was being pranked when I found out.”
She has no regrets about the content of her Trump tweets: “The only thing I regret is the situation I put ESPN in,” says Hill, who came to the company in 2006 after stints at the Free Press and the Orlando Sentinel.
“With a platform as big as ESPN, people can’t differentiate what you think and what the company thinks. I espouse my own personal views,” she says. “Unfortunately, ESPN got dragged into some narratives that they didn’t really deserve to be in. That’s the only thing I regret. Whatever heat and criticism came my way: Fine, so be it. I didn’t really sweat that too much.”
Hill says the idea of herself as a lightning rod is “kind of amusing. Anybody who knows me in real life knows I’m not really that way. I don’t go around starting arguments. I have a sense of humor. I have other interests that don’t involve polarizing people.”
She left SportsCenter of her own accord in January. Mike Smith followed suit in March. The two commentators who previously hosted the show His & Hers were never “a comfortable fit” for SportsCenter, she says, whose viewers were unaccustomed to hosts expressing opinions. “Maybe for some people that was confusing.”
Hill still appears on many ESPN shows, but has a home base at The Undefeated, the Washington-based, ESPN-owned website that explores the intersections of race, sports, and culture. “I wanted to be in a place where I could do what The Undefeated does. … Sports and politics, and sports and socials issues have always collided with one another, but now more than ever those conversations are dominating the news cycle. … I wanted to be in the mix,” Hill, who moved to Washington in May, says. “Tweets or 30-second sound bites don’t offer you the opportunity to really flesh out and hammer your perspective home in a 1,000-word column.”
Hill’s voice has not been muted by her move to The Undefeated. In her column about the NFL’s newly announced policy on players protesting the national anthem, she wrote: “It’s no secret that the league was motivated to come up with this not-so-genius strategy because it’s scared of President Donald Trump and worried about alienating corporate partners and a subset of its fans.”
“The NFL is going to face a very unintended consequence,” she says. “Towards the end of the season, there were not a lot of players kneeling. … Now they come with this heavy-handed policy that basically dares players to protest. … Players feel like they’re being personally challenged. They feel like they need to do it to fight for their right to express themselves. The NFL picked a fight and they didn’t have to.”
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins’ comments this week underscored Hill’s point: “Guys get upset when you try to tell them what they can and can’t do. The same way the entire league got sparked last year when [President] Trump made his comments,” criticizing player protesters. “We went from, like, nine guys [protesting] to over 200.”
In L.A. this week, Hill woke up one morning to texts telling her she was trending on Twitter. “I’m not dead, right?,” she asked herself.
After Hill was interviewed on Tuesday, the story was published in The Ringer about Philadelphia 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo possibly operating several burner Twitter accounts that he might have used to criticize his own players and colleagues.
Hill gave her hot take via email the next day. The scandal could hurt the Sixers’ chances of acquiring James in free agency. “There is no way that the Sixers get LeBron with Colangelo there, because not only did he backstab his own players, but he threw shots at two of [James’] closest friends in Dwyane Wade & Gabrielle Union,” who were criticized on one of the burner accounts for acting rude to fans at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Union was not even there.
“If Bryan Colangelo is really behind these secret accounts, then he should be thoroughly embarrassed. I don’t see how he can maintain his position with Philly because what player would ever trust him? What team could ever trust him?”