Illustration for article titled Losing Vibe

When I heard about the shuttering of Vibe Magazine, it took me back to my time at Vibe Magazine, in its heyday. It wasn’t long after the magazine got started that it captured the imagination and other black people like me not easily categorized or filed away. The kind of people who had to buy three different kind of magazines—(the old) Details, Face and The Source—to feel sated, to feel challenged and engaged. Vibe Magazine came on the scene with the Justice League of hot, young, fresh, black writing talent: Scott Poulson-Bryant, Joan Morgan, Bonz Malone, Harry Allen, Kevin Powell,  Danyel Smith, The Ghetto Communicator. All the names serious readers spent hunting down were finally warehoused in one publication, and it was magnificent. From the cover to cover, it was evident from the first issue that Vibe Magazine stepped on the scene to change the game. This wasn’t just a music magazine: it was young, smart, black and right on time, without apology. It read as if it was for Us, by Us. Fresh and refreshing, literary and artful, the kind of publication that drew out black bohemian, barbershop intellectuals, bookstore radicals, hip-hop scientist, preacher-pimps, pushing that hip-hop science to new civilizations, determined to take this hip-hop ish places no man or woman had ever gone before. Vibe covered everything from arts to politics with a perspective I'd never seen before, written by people who were more than slightly hipper than me. It appeared to be documenting the ascension of a new New Negro beyond the one dancing around on MTV or being arrested on “Cops.” There was something important in that space in between extremes, and Vibe Magazine was right there reporting it. It seemed to have fallen to Earth, an encoded communiqué for a forgotten, invisible people.


People like me.

In the mid-90s, I was a record-store clerk and Dj flunking out of junior college rotting numb inside the corpse of a dying marriage, so when I got accepted to be an intern in Vibe’s marketing department, it was like being bought outof purgatory by Willy freaking Wonka. I felt like I had discovered some lost city and just had no idea how lucky I really was. It wasn't all babies and cream —- after all, I was the worst intern in the history of interns for any corporate entity in the history of the industrialized Western world. Making crap money, I lost 30 pounds, nearly came to blows with (pre-reformed, pre-politically deluded) Kevin Powell within minutes after we met. But I had fun and learned alot.


The articles, the lifestyle, the LEGENDARY Vibe parties –omigod! Vibe was the place to be, the place you branded your byline as a black writer, the repository of cool, vanguard of a whole new black aesthetic. Quincy Jones’ idea to craft a funky, progressive urban magazine really set it off and that energy was everywhere in the offices. Everyone was high on this new thing we were creating. I mean, THEY were creating. I was busy schlepping mail, messing up breakfast orders and being generally inept. I wrote copy for a few ads, but that’s it. I really effed up as an intern, but I came back to Cleveland changed forever, because I’d learned something important. That I wasn’t an anomaly—there were other black people reading, writing, living and loving life, feeling free to express that freedom—just like me. And we were all reading Vibe.

After rappers Biggie and Tupac were killed, something changed, a slight turn to the mainstream, already in progress at Vibe when I got there, began to pick up speed. The editorial focus leaned away from Vibe’s black constituency and towards a generation of white kids who only knew black culture as Americana. Instead of being the periodical of choice for the black BoHo set, Vibe fast became the white hipster’s guide to the Negro World. Somewhere between 1995 and 1997, Vibe Magazine lost its mojo. There were some great moments here and there, but Vibe clearly wasn’t for Us anymore. It wasn’t "must read" material. It became more of just a music magazine than a cultural touchstone. Right On! Magazine For Dummies. It was being pushed by the mainstream instead of pushing against it or from the inside out. Editors would come and go, putting their own respective stamps on it, making it very pop or very gay or very young or very mainstream, but it never seemed to gel. After 1998, Vibe never found the beat again. The combination of no-name, passionless writing, bad cover subjects and diminishing street cred (any street) conspired with the economy and the fickle taste of hipsters to today, despite the best efforts of the irrepressible Danyel Smith, leave Vibe barren and irrelevant.

But for all its faults we still needed that rag. You better know Rolling Stone isn’t giving young black writers free-voice, letting them toy with language and form, giving them hot, glossy clips. No one is.

So what now? Young black writers gonna get stuck in the ghetto, relegated to writing for Hype Hair! or Black Beat? Say it ain’t so.


Vibe Magazine was too black, too cool, too soon and the marketplace could not sustain it. We were not ready. It was a victim of its own success, trying too hard to be all things to everybody, ending up being nothing much to anyone. Even though Jones has said he will raise his brand from the grave—and I believe he will—I wonder if he will be able to reinvigorate the brand, reanimate and inspire a whole new generation of invisible black bohemians looking for each other.

Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper

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