The Yellowman concert in Raleigh that changed Bomani Jones's career
The ESPN and HBO commentator spent a decade of his life in the Triangle. The whole experience shaped his unique voice, but one nearly empty reggae show at the Lincoln Theatre brought him clarity.
Last week, Bomani Jones came out with this clip:
Jones’s message here: Don’t change what you do for the people who hate it. Do what you do for the people who love it. But in this clip, there’s a specific anecdote that caught my ear:
I went to a concert, I want to say it’s like 12 years ago, somewhere in there. I went to see Yellowman at the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh. And Raleigh did not have a great track record for like promoting club shows and stuff like that. This is a legendary Reggae artist, and there’s like three people there. And so Yellowman comes on stage, and he looks out, and he see it’s three people. And he rocked it like it was Summer Jam, right? The three people who were there were going to get a full show because they paid the money to see that dude, right? And that really, like, inspired me and informed everything else that I wound up doing, really, in the end. Because no matter what, you gotta do the show, right?
A few things. First, Jones is one of ESPN’s most well-known commentators, and he’s parlayed that into a show on HBO called Game Theory that does. Not. Hold. Back. It is impossible to listen to Bomani Jones for any length of time and not come away with a very strong opinion of him. Second, Jones’s career began in the Triangle, where he wrote for espn.com, got laid off, then landed some sports radio gigs. He lived in Durham for almost a decade. Third, he’s a prolific tweeter, and he barely ever loses an argument on Twitter. That doesn’t stop people from coming at him all day every day—such is the reality for a public figure who makes definitive statements in 280 characters or less. But when Jones punches back, he often hits so hard that people end up deleting their tweets, making their accounts private, or fleeing from Twitter altogether.
All of which means: I know better than to hit Bomani Jones with a #WellActually. But! I was very curious to know what really happened at a concert that he attended with, like, a handful of other people. I found the first clues in some 12-year-old tweets:
Okay! So we have a few more clues. There were maybe 10 people in the house, not three. One of them was Peter Green, who dropped beats on Bomani’s show when he was on the air in Raleigh. But those only refer to the show. I went back further to find out when the actual show happened:
I did confirm: Yellowman played a late show on July 4, 2009 at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, although no pictures or video of the show seem to exist (If you want to see what a Yellowman concert circa 2009 was like, there are some examples like this one on YouTube). I did email a rep for Yellowman, but never heard back.
So, armed with all of this information, I called Jones himself. “I didn’t realize it was that far back,” he told me via phone last week. He does insist that there were only about 10 people there: “It was definitely not 50.”
What follows is a conversation with Bomani Jones about reggae, Raleigh, preparation, economics, and how he weeds out what matters from what doesn’t. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:
RABBIT HOLE: What do you remember about that show?
BOMANI JONES: My buddy Peter is a super duper reggae devotee, which is a way of saying he's white. He's like the white dude with dreadlocks literally down to his ass. He's not a poser. Like, he's legit. And so he's like, “Yo, Yellowman’s in town.” I'm familiar with Yellowman, but I don't know the Yellowman catalog like that right? It's like yo, we'll go. So we called my buddy Che who's from New York with some Jamaican ancestry. He was down. And so the three of us rode out to Lincoln Theatre. We walk in, and we see maybe two or three people. And so Yellowman comes out. He sees that nobody's there. He comes on stage, and I think he may have made some reference to the fact that there weren't that many people there, but no problem. We were gonna have a good time.
What jumped out to me was: It's one thing to be like, oh, he gave a full performance. But it's another thing when you see the person, and they're doing all the steps and stuff like it was a full audience. It was really just five of us, and he tore it down. I think he sang “Oh Carolina.” He did an encore! He did an encore for the five of us!
RABBIT HOLE: I know performers who feed off the energy of the crowd. If there are five people there, what are you feeding off of?
JONES: I think he was feeding simply off of the spirit of responsibility and obligation, right? Like a spirit of pride in what he did.
RABBIT HOLE: When I talked to Che, he was like, “I kinda remember this show and I remember going” and that sort of thing. But he kinda mentioned it stuck out because you and him had gone to see another rapper...
RABBIT HOLE: It was T.I.?
JONES: It was T.I.! We went to go see T.I. at Duke and he fucking mailed it in!
RABBIT HOLE: Yeah, he said Yellowman was so much better than that show. He wouldn’t name the rapper. But said the rapper got there late, phoned it in, and then left early to go to P.F. Chang’s.
JONES: Yup. That was T.I. I’ll put his name in there. That was T.I.
RABBIT HOLE: So, who were you in 2009? Where was your career, and why were you living in Raleigh?
JONES: So I moved to Durham because I am a Durhamite, I want to be clear.
RABBIT HOLE: An important delineation.
JONES: Yes. I moved to Durham in 2003 and I was in a Ph.D. program in economics at UNC. I did that for a couple of years before we had a mutual agreement that my path in life was in a different direction. So 2005 is when I really started sports writing, and I had a job with espn.com from 2006 to 2007, and I got let go from that. And then in 2008, I started doing a Saturday morning radio show on a sports station in Raleigh, 850 The Buzz, and parlayed that into getting the midday show on their sister station, 620 The Bull. That's right before I found out that I was having incredible success, but I was about to lose my job. But yeah I was the midday sports dude in the Triangle at that time, making $39,000 a year, I believe the number was. And I'm there with Che who I met at Carolina and Peter? I was his rec league basketball coach when I met him in 2005. So I was a decidedly regular person with a job that seems less regular than it—or I—was.
RABBIT HOLE: You had some clarity about the Yellowman show, what it meant to you, and what you could take from that experience. Did you have it right then? Did you have it afterwards?
JONES: I had it then. I had worked for ESPN. And now I'm working for a local station. In theory, why do I need to work like I did at ESPN? This isn’t ESPN, right? Except this is me. This is my work, but I'm at a point now in my life where my platform, one could argue, had kinda declined.
At that point, I've never been an on-air personality before. I'm looking at my work in a bit of a different way. And I'm like, it don't matter if nobody is listening, or if two people listen to this. Because one cool thing about radio and TV when you do it on air is: The audience could be 10 million or 10 people. You have no idea. You're just doing whatever your show is. And so for me it really was a reminder that no matter what, if you’ve got a show, you do your show. You do the show as you planned. There's no reason to cut corners. You already set up to do the whole thing, so do the whole thing. And do it like you mean it.
I think maybe the simplest term to put this in is: You have to respect your audience. And that’s what Yellowman demonstrated to me: A really big respect for the people who came to see him. That's the part that really does stick with me. The respect factor.
RABBIT HOLE: You seem to be somebody who can arrive at clarity about a number of things.
JONES: I think that’s fair.
RABBIT HOLE: In general, how do you approach arriving at clarity?
JONES: Well, sometimes it just jumps out, right? Like in that one, it just jumped out. It wasn't like I was sitting there at the reggae show, thinking about the existential qualities of the show, right? Sometimes it just hits you and you’re just like, “yo, this is the thing that happened.”
I studied economics, which is really just a bunch of math. When you do all the math, what you realize is: what you're trying to do at every turn is reduce an equation to parameters. Right? Get the variables out of the way, get all the noise out of there, get to the simplest thing that holds, and draw conclusions off of that simplicity.
My brother told me something when I first started writing. It’s something that stuck with me: “A great argument is not what a genius can't refute, it’s what a fool can’t refute.” And so it's not about trying to build up the complex structures that surround you, it's about parsing that complex structure and finding what's essential to find out what's at the bottom of it. The thing that matters, right? There's some sort of nucleus. It's just figuring out how to get the thing that’s in the way out of the way.
RABBIT HOLE: How much longer were you around the Triangle after that Yellowman show?
JONES: Four more years.
RABBIT HOLE: What is it about this area that you've taken with you? Is there anything you’ve learned here that you’ve wanted to leave behind?
JONES: My 10 years in the Triangle were so overwhelmingly positive. I can’t think of anything negative. I literally lived there until I couldn't anymore. My career had reached a place such that it was costly for me to stay there.
RABBIT HOLE: Costly like, you were gonna make more money elsewhere?
JONES: Yeah. Not even like a little bit more, you know what I mean? It's like, you can't do this TV show in Raleigh. I left to go do Highly Questionable in Miami with Dan LeBatard. That was the only reason I left. Otherwise I was gonna stay there as long as I could.
It was so interesting getting there, because I had lived in Southern California. I got to the Triangle and I found there to be a very interesting diversity. It's such an educated area. There are so many schools there, which is great for me. I'm the son of college professors who grew up on college campuses. All of that stuff. And then there was just such that wonderfully rich Black diaspora of Durham, and all the history that went along with that, and also some of the hey, watch ya back sort of elements that came from it. But I found the people that I met there were very well versed and—this is a very important thing—I found them to be well versed up and down the class spectrum. Especially with Black Durham. That was really a big thing that jumped out to me. So doing sports radio in Raleigh is so much different than the sports radio everywhere else. In Raleigh, you're talking to a much more educated base of people than you typically are in other places, which allowed me to approach my work in a much more cerebral way than I think I could have if I was getting my start in some other places. It was perfect for me. My life and career don't go the way that they did if I had not ultimately decided to go to Carolina. The most important decision I made was deciding to stay after I left school.
RABBIT HOLE: You still follow Yellowman?
JONES: He's a bit of an older act, so I don't keep up with the current stuff. But when I’m in a reggae mood, I put his stuff on.
RABBIT HOLE: I listened to “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng.” It’s a very long title.
JONES: Yeah, “Murderer” is the one to check out for him.
What a cool guy. I'm not familiar with him, but will definitely check his show out. I love the lesson he took from the concert. It's very true. I've seen a lot of bands with little to no crowds and it's always interesting to see the reactions. Some pull out all the stops like Yellowman did, but many just phone it in and go home.
Also, his approach to breaking down an argument is great: "it's not about trying to build up the complex structures that surround you, it's about parsing that complex structure and finding what's essential to find out what's at the bottom of it. The thing that matters, right?" Very refreshing and true.
I watched all those clips from his HBO show. Thanks for sharing them.