MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for a visit to the Beauty Shop where our panel of women journalists and commentators take a fresh cut on the week's news. Sitting in the chairs for a new do this week are Deonna Kelli Sayed. She's a freelance writer - sorry. Excuse me. Sorry about that. I was just overcome with emotion at talking to Deonna again. She's a freelance writer and editor of the website Love InshAllah. Nana Mensah is an actress on the web series, "An African City." Writer Veronica Miller is a contributor for xoJane and thegrio.com. And Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor of PJ Media. That's a conservative, libertarian news and commentary site. Welcome back, everybody.
DEONNA KELLI SAYED: Hey, Michel.
VERONICA MILLER: Hello.
NANA MENSAH: Thank you.
BRIDGET JOHNSON: Hello.
MARTIN: So let's start with a political story. And I just have to tell you that the elements of it might be disturbing for some people to hear. So with that being said, this is about Hillary Clinton. She's back in the news over a case that people - that might become important if she decides to run for president, as many people think that she will. This goes back to 1975, when she was a young lawyer. She was in her twenties, and she defended a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. But this is not the first time that this case has come up, as you might imagine with somebody with such a long political career. But this week, the Washington Free Beacon, which is a conservative media outlet, released audiotapes from the mid-1980s of Hillary Clinton talking about the case with journalist Roy Reed. And in the tapes, Clinton seems to be laughing about the case and seems to allude to believing that her client was, in fact, guilty. Now, the audio is a little difficult to understand. We're just going to play a short clip of it. But we do want you to understand that the audio exists. So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HILLARY CLINTON: Of course, he claimed that he didn't. He took a lie detector test, which he passed, which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs.
MARTIN: Now, if you couldn't understand what she was saying, Hillary Clinton says the man she defended took a lie detector test, a polygraph, which he passed, and that that forever destroyed her faith in polygraphs. The client eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. And Clinton said that he was released with time served. But the girl who was the accuser in this case is now a 52-year-old woman. And she spoke with The Daily Beast earlier this week. And she says she's still angry about this case. She's angry about the way that Clinton defended her client, saying that she did that by smearing her reputation. And she says that if she could speak to Clinton directly, she would say, "you lied on me. I realize the truth now, the heart of what you've done to me. And you are supposed to be for women? You call that being for women, what you've done to me?" you know, unquote. So I wanted to ask all of you about what you think about this, both the facts and what are being made of the facts. And Bridget, why don't you start?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, first of all, I listen to that tape and I think it reaffirms my belief about defense attorneys. But, you know, I can say from experience, cops and prosecutors also make off-the-record, crass comments. Now, though, if you look at the recent history of how controversial criminal cases have affected Washington, though, she could be in a bit of trouble - not for the case itself but that this is coupled with the Dems' war on women message. You know, for example, you look at the Debo Adegbile nomination that was blocked from the Justice Department. And some Senate Democrats joined in on that. And it was not just because he had represented Mumia in that case, but that they felt that he was participating in the PR campaign that smeared the victim. And so...
MARTIN: OK, but that's not the case here. But - I don't know, was there a PR campaign here? I mean, still, can we stick to the facts of this particular case?
JOHNSON: No, so I'm just saying that it's not the fact that she defended a rapist that could come back to haunt her, but comments surrounding it and comments coupled with the fact that the Democrats are using the war on women meme at the moment.
MARTIN: Veronica Miller, what are your thoughts about this?
MILLER: Well, I mean, I think the comments that she made can be, you know, a little unsettling and a little disarming when you listen to it. But I have a hard time thinking that the party that brought us legitimate rape will, you know, suddenly become advocates of the way rape victims are treated in criminal cases in this issue. So I looked a little bit into the commentary on this, and there's honestly more commentary about Hillary's, you know, we were poor - we were broke comments from, like, I think last week or the week before, than there is about this case. I think it's just hard to, you know, for the right to turn this into a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton because then they would have to become advocates of women's rights and rape cases.
MARTIN: Nana Mensah, what do you think?
MENSAH: I don't know. I mean, it's a little unsettling, to be honest. But at the same time, it's like, at the time she was - what? - 27 years old and, you know, scrappy and trying to establish her name as a defense attorney. And I agree with Veronica. It's kind of the lesser of two evils here. I mean, I don't believe that the Republican Party is the party to champion women's rights. And so if I'm picking between the lesser of two evils, my vote stays with Hillary. You know?
MARTIN: Deonna, what do you think?
SAYED: Well, actually, I have a little bit of personal experience with a very similar situation. And when I was around 11 or 12, I was sexually assaulted. And the outcome of the case was greatly determined by local politics. So I know what it's like to have the system fail you. And sometimes that trauma is even harder to deal with than the sexual assault. It does make me question Hillary Clinton ethics. However, just as I would not want an event that happened to me when I was 11 or 12 determine the sum of my existence, I would not take a professional decision Hillary Clinton made in her late twenties to be the sum of her current existence, either. And I find it offensive that partisan politics is probably behind the current leak of the audio, which is again taking rape to be somehow a politicized endeavor, rather than a real personal trauma that somebody experienced as a young girl.
MARTIN: Can I just say one thing, Bridget? You talked about, you know, the ethics of defense lawyers. And I have to say - well, I think most people know my husband is a defense lawyer. And before that, he was a prostitute. I mean, he was a prosecutor for 17 years so both working on both the local and the federal level. And I always find it interesting when conservatives criticize a fundamental right, which is to have counsel. And I guess I'm just sort of wondering, so how do you have a right if there's nobody willing to activate that? I mean, elsewhere in the world, when lawyers are attacked like they are in Egypt, for defending - or in China, when they are, you know, attacked for defending unpopular clients - right? - then, you know, people want to step in and say, oh, you know. But when it comes to defending unpopular people in the United States, somehow they're wrong for doing that. I just wonder how you square that up.
JOHNSON: Well, I don't think that it's denying people the right to have capable defense. I think that it's something where people's emotions play into it. And they see a horrific case. And they see, you know, oh, you know, how could you have defend a Ted Bundy or, you know, a person who...
MARTIN: But that's what - that's why we have rules - isn't it? - so that emotions are mediated. That's what the whole purpose of a system is.
JOHNSON: I'm not saying they should play into it. But I'm just talking about the reality of how people view situations like that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our Beauty Shop conversation. We're talking about the week's news with Bridget Johnson, Nana Mensah, Deonna Kelli Sayed and Veronica Miller. Deonna, I just want to take one minute to say I'm really sorry about what happened to you before we move on.
MARTIN: I don't want to let that moment go but say, I'm sorry that that happened to you.
SAYED: Thank you.
MARTIN: And it should not have happened to you. But - so let's turn to another story. It's not quite as serious. But it's just the kind of thing that's very serious to some people. It's interesting. It kind of pushes a lot of buttons in a similar kind of an emotional way. We're talking about the biopic that is getting a lot of attention. The Lifetime Network has announced that they'll be making a movie about the late R&B singer Aaliyah. And already, there seems to be some drama. Aaliyah's family is not supporting the film, saying, Aaliyah was an American music icon who deserves to, quote, "have a tribute much more grand than a television network debut that won't even consider the perspectives of those closest to Aaliyah." So there's that. And then there's the question of her secret marriage to the very controversial singer R. Kelly. She was 15 and then he was 27. Is there a question about whether that will be addressed? But there's also this whole thing going on - Veronica, I'll start there with you - that Disney Channel actress Zendaya has been cast to play Aaliyah. Zendaya is biracial. Her mom's white. Her dad's black. And some people, apparently, on social media, are saying that she's the wrong choice for this. So what do you think about that?
MILLER: Well, I mean, I'm in that generation - I was one of the girls where, you know, Aaliyah was our icon growing up. Right? She was this brown girl from the city. And she dressed in urban clothes. And she liked to sing and dance just like the rest of us did. She just, you know, got famous doing it. And so when, you know, you learn that you cast this young girl, Zendaya, who I think is only 17 - you know, to us looks nothing like Aaliyah. And, you know, she is lighter skinned. And I, you know, I'm cautious about approaching, you know, skin color politics. But in this case, Aaliyah's appeal was the fact that she was a brown girl. You know what I mean? And so when you cast somebody that doesn't look like her and, you know, lightens her up, it kind of takes that part of her story out of it. And it takes away, you know, the significance that she had to the rest of us. So, you know, that's the controversy over it. You know, if you want to represent one of, you know, our icons, for our generation, do it, you know, accurately. It's kind of parallel to the Zoe Saldana-Nina Simone thing that popped up last year.
MARTIN: What do you think, Nana?
MENSAH: I totally disagree. I mean, I feel like Zendaya - I mean, I am of that same group. And Aaliyah was also an icon to me, as well. I don't think that they look that dissimilar. And this might be - and that's semantics. But, I mean, first of all, this speaks to a larger argument of racial identity for black people in this country. And often, you hear that, like, I'm not black. I'm a quarter Irish, and a 16th Inuit and whatever. It's like, girl, you're black. Like, sit down. You know? It's like, Lenny Kravitz is black. Halle Berry is black. Barack Obama is black. Like, I don't think the - you know, half this, quarter that, 16th that - I think the question is beginning to be irrelevant as we are, you know, mating with each other and interracial and biracial relationships are starting to, you know - I don't think we can start splitting hairs like that anymore - or I think we have to stop splitting hairs like that.
MARTIN: Yeah. What about - does anybody else want to weigh in on this? Bridget, do you - do you care?
JOHNSON: I mean, I was thinking more of the...
MARTIN: I'm just thinking about this because Zendaya - I mean, from my perspective, Zendaya is such a - she is kind of an icon for young girls today because she's just so fabulous. I mean, she sings. She dances. And she does all that stuff. And her show on Disney was kind of - was super fun and, you know, talked about, you know, girls wanting to be ambitious for something for themselves. You know, girls who were the age, Veronica, that you were then, when Aaliyah was big...
MARTIN: Are loving the Zendaya. So you can certainly understand why she's an icon for them. But Bridget, what do you think? As the non-black person. How about that? (Laughing) I mean...
MARTIN: To your knowledge. As far as you know.
JOHNSON: Well you know, I would say that the melting pot just going to make us more meltier, shall I say. (Laughing) You know? Everything's just going to be, you know, not - you know, more mixed and everything. So we should probably not focus on that too much. I would focus - I would be upset if someone was making a Lifetime movie out of me. But, you know...
MENSAH: Full stop, right?
MARTIN: Because - any movie or Lifetime?
JOHNSON: A Lifetime movie.
MARTIN: Oh, the Lifetime aspect of it, OK. Well, you know, at least that you'd know they'd be crying, right?
MARTIN: At least you know there'd be crying involved. Deonna, do you care? What do you think?
SAYED: I just think it's interesting, this whole American fascination with celebrity and reinterpreting celebrities who have passed - reinterpreting their identity and even making them lighter than they really were. It's almost an American fascination to change the story when it's going to be good for ratings, perhaps.
MENSAH: I don't know if that's true. Like, I think that that's really false. I think Zendaya looks a lot like Aaliyah - so she happens to be slightly fairer. But I don't think you can compare that to Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone. Nina Simone was inky, inky dark. And, again, like I said, I don't want to split these hairs. But, you know - and, you know, Zoe Saldana's Dominican. And so it's a completely different basis. But Zendaya and Aaliyah look a lot alike. I mean, just because there's a slight gradation difference in color, I don't think that you can say that she's not worthy of being able to play the role.
MARTIN: It's always - you know, the tricky thing for me, though, is always how much to take note of this kind of social media chatter. You know, that's - I think that's part of the problem of our age, is knowing how much weight to give these kinds of conversations that, frankly, you know, you might have, like, in the ladies room at your high school. You wouldn't even bring it out into the hallway because it's that...
MENSAH: That's right.
MARTIN: That's the question is, how seriously do we take it? I think part of that's what this is about. But, you know, speaking of, you know, artists who were gone too soon, can we take a moment to remember Michael Jackson, who was my icon growing up? Right? You know, we all had one Jackson brother that we claimed who was ours. You know, Michael was mine. And today is the fifth anniversary of his death. It turns out that his estate has made some, like, $700 million since he passed away, which is just kind of remarkable. I'm not quite sure what that says. But did any of you want to share your Michael Jackson memories? Deonna...
MARTIN: Do you want to share one?
SAYED: Oh, I do. I grew up in the rural South, in a very racially segregated area. And I remember being like 8, or 9, or 10 when "Thriller" came out. And it was such a big thing. And so few people had satellites that they bussed the white kids to the Civic Center so we could watch it on television. And it was this great moment because it really did transcend race in an area where race was a really big issue.
MARTIN: Nana, what about you?
MENSAH: Well, I'm Ghanaian-American. And a lot of times, I spent a lot of time with my family over in the UK. There was, you know, mass exodus from Ghana in the '60s and '70s. And, you know, my cousins that were raised there were Ghanaian-Brits. And I remember it's like we had completely different - you know, we didn't use the same slang. Our accents were completely different. But at the same time, it's like when you put on "Thriller,"...It's like, we knew all the words. We knew all the dance steps. We knew - you know? And that was this great unifier, despite our very, you know, our different cultural backgrounds. It was...Yeah. It was a great unifier.
MARTIN: Veronica, what about you? You claimed Aaliyah, so you can't have Michael too. So I'm just letting you know...
MILLER: Oh, I have to have Michael.
MARTIN: Go ahead. But you can - you can share a memory. It's OK.
MILLER: Well, my very first concert was when I was 5, the Michael Jackson "Bad" tour, when he stopped in Pittsburgh. And I remember just being absolutely, like, electrified. And it just kind of started this kind of lifelong obsession with him. And I remember being scared by the "Thriller" section 'cause there were like werewolves and ghosts, and that was creepy. But I also remember hearing "Heartbreak Hotel" for the very first time. And it just blew my mind. And then, I would go home, and I didn't understand that this person had music from before I was born. So I was looking for it on my "Bad" album. And it wasn't there, and I was very angry that I couldn't find the song on the current album he had, not knowing it had come out, like, years before. But yeah, I just had - still have - like, a lifelong obsession and reverence for him as a performer and a musician.
MARTIN: Bridget, what about you? Do you have a Jackson Five or a Michael Jackson memory you want to share?
JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, my favorite has to be Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" video 'cause I was a kid at the time. And we were being bombarded with, you know, popsters who were supposed to be the heroes and the role models for us. And then comes this song. And he puts out there in the video people who have become my real heroes, like Mother Teresa, and Lech Walesa and MLK, and with the message to make that change. So, you know, it was - it was really impactful.
MARTIN: Can I just share mine? Growing up, we did not have a lot of money. But I remember my dad somehow - my parents, I should say - pulling it together to get tickets for all five of us to go see the Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden. And I just remember thinking it was like this - just- it was like - I just can't even describe what that was like. I mean, we didn't take vacations. We didn't, you know, do a lot of things like that. But for him to kind of deal - you, know, figure out that this was, like, something important to us, or our parents to figure out and take us...But I also remember, you know, my father was a firefighter. And I remember we had to leave early to beat the rush, you know, to the exits. OK, kids - and I still remember him, like, marching us out of there.
MARTIN: We're like, what? How can you, like - OK, kids, we've got to beat the rush. We've got to get out of there...Because my dad, to the end of his days, always had to check the exits - like, that was...
MARTIN: But it's a - it's a good memory. So I still miss Michael Jackson. So thank you all, ladies. So thank you all...
MENSAH: Of course.
MARTIN: For joining us to share those important memories. Deonna Kelli Sayed is editor of the website loveinshallah.com. She joined us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Veronica Miller writes about fashion and pop culture for xoJane and The Grio, with us from Philadelphia. Nana Mensah is an actress on the breakout web series "An African City," with us from Austin, Texas. And Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media, with us from Washington, D.C.. Ladies, thank you all so much.
JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.
MENSAH: Thank you.
MILLER: Thank you.
SAYED: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.