Letters To Cleo "Cleo-ize" The Holidays On The Limited-Edition 'OK Christmas' EP

Letters To Cleo

Photo by Chris Sikich


Letters To Cleo "Cleo-ize" The Holidays On The Limited-Edition 'OK Christmas' EP

"'Ok Christmas' is this year’s annual holiday gift to our fans," Kay Hanley, lead singer of the Boston alt-rock troupe, tells the Recording Academy

GRAMMYs/Nov 26, 2019 - 01:29 am

"Every year we joke about doing a Christmas record," laughs Letters To Cleo lead singer Kay Hanley, "but this year we decided to get serious and finally do it." Since reuniting in 2016, the beloved Boston alt-rockers have been playing a year-end run of shows where they like to have a surprise or two up their sleeves. "For the last couple of years, it’s been a bit of a tradition for us to tour in November," says Hanley. "When you only go on tour once a year, you can’t go out empty-handed. So, Ok Christmas is this year’s annual holiday gift to our fans."

Comprised of three holiday covers and a newly penned original, the Ok Christmas EP finds the band mining the often-overlooked corners of the Christmas canon for some left-of-center chestnuts through which to celebrate their seasonal spirit. Where some bands stumble when it comes to covering other artists' material, Letters To Cleo have been showcasing their unique talent for reinterpretation since their original run in the 1990s. They memorably became soundtrack/compilation phenoms with covers of The Cars' "Dangerous Type” (from cult classic "The Craft"), Fleetwood Mac’s "Dreams" (from the Spirit Of '73: Rock For Choice album) and their double-dipped entry of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" from the soundtrack to the high school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (a film in which they also make multiple on-screen appearances).

For Ok Christmas, Letters To Cleo bypassed the well-worn holiday fare for a trio of Christmas covers from The Kinks, Elvis Presley and The Dogmatics, a fellow Boston rock band that was active in the early-to-mid 1980s. However, even when they start off with another band’s material, Hanley and her bandmates can always find the right avenue through which to properly "Cleo-ize" their bouncy, buzzy, cranked-to-11 interpolations. There are no kids' choirs, church organs, "Jingle Bells" motifs or any other seasonal saccharine to be found here—not even in the EP's title. "We went through all the schmaltzy titles like Cleo For The Holidays or Cleo Does Christmas, but none of that was working. I suggested Ok Christmas because it’s a play on Radiohead's OK Computer, which is a phrase I’ve been using a lot in the last few years when responding to bots on Twitter," laughs Hanley.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Ok Christmas, the Recording Academy chatted with Hanley about her own connection to holiday music, the band's song selection process and the inspiration behind each of the four tracks.

Kay Hanley: Once we finally decided to record a Christmas EP, everything came together pretty quickly. We did a little deep dive into potential songs and democratically chose which ones we were going to do. However, as with most holiday albums, we had to record it in the least Christmas-like atmosphere you could imagine: 90 degrees in July in Los Angeles in a little studio over in Koreatown. But we had a good time and just went for it. Even the artwork process turned out simple enough. Our graphic designer, Nicole Anguish of Daykamp Creative, came up with the cover on her very first pass. She only showed us one thing and we were immediately blown away!

During the recording sessions for Ok Christmas, the band didn't try to manufacture any fake holiday spirit by stringing lights all over the studio or by putting up a Christmas tree in the corner of the control room. Instead, Hanley felt that she and her bandmates were able to stir up the exact inspiration they needed from their own nostalgic memories and their personal connections to the holiday music of their childhood.

Kay Hanley: I grew up in a very devout Catholic family and my parents listened to a lot of Elvis and a lot of religious music around the holidays. So, I was a big fan of Christmas music, especially the big dramatic church songs like "O Holy Night." In fact, we almost did "O Holy Night," but it was really hard to figure out how to get the right Cleo vibe on it, so we didn't push it. Even though I'm a Catholic atheist, I love the holiday and everything about it. I haven't been to a Christmas mass since moving to Los Angeles. However, there's a church right across the street from us, so maybe I’ll take the kids this year because the place is really beautiful.

One of the potential tracks that all of the band members immediately agreed on was The Kinks' 1977 holiday single "Father Christmas." While the original has long been an anchor of power-pop holiday playlists thanks to its roaring guitars and propulsive drumming, Letters To Cleo managed to further the song's intensity through their amped-up romp that serves as the door-busting opener to Ok Christmas.

Kay Hanley: There was never going to be a Cleo Christmas album without The Kinks on it. "Father Christmas" was just automatically going to be on there. It was the first one we chose and we just all knew it was going to happen. We all love The Kinks and it was such a blast to record. I hope the fun we had really comes through in the recording.

However, hidden away in Ray Davies' satirical lyrics about a department store Santa getting roughed up by an unruly gang of kids was one specific line—"But if you've got one, I'll take a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids on the street"—that didn’t sit quite well with the band in light of America's ongoing gun violence epidemic.

Kay Hanley: We had just finished tracking all of the music for our version of "Father Christmas" when the mass shooting in El Paso happened. Our guitarist, Greg McKenna, texted the band on our group chat and asked if we should change the machine gun lyric. My first instinct was to leave it intact, just because I’m a songwriting purist. To be honest with you, the machine gun line had always just floated over my head because the whole song is just so tongue-in-cheek in the way it’s commenting on class and the haves vs. the have-nots. But it only took a few minutes for me to be like, "Oh no, we can't use that lyric." It just seemed really tone-deaf in the face of the gun violence crisis that our country is going through. I went to Twitter and slid up into The Kinks' mentions, told them that we were recording the song, and explained why we wanted to change the machine gun lyric. We didn't hear back from them, but our fans saw it and offered up some ideas on how to switch it up. One of our fans, Eric Reiberg, made a suggestion that I ended up modifying a little into a new couplet —"Can you meltdown all the machine guns/So the kids are safe on the street." It feels so much better now. Hopefully, Ray Davies won't be mad at us.    

For their next cover in the Ok Christmas tracklist, Letters To Cleo pulled out another '70s seasonal singalong. "If I Get Home On Christmas Day" was originally recorded by Elvis Presley for his 1971 album Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas. While the maudlin mid-tempo ballad may have shared a release decade with the spunky "Father Christmas," it certainly didn't share the same level of enthusiasm from the band during the Ok Christmas song selection discussions. At least, not until McKenna reworked the overly sentimental arrangement into the charming, twangy shuffle that eventually won Hanley over.

Kay Hanley: Greg brought this one to the band because he was the only one daring enough to look for the unknown songs that no one really covers. Initially, I wasn't into that approach at all and wanted stuff that people would immediately recognize. So when Greg first showed us this Elvis song, I was like "Hell no, absolutely not!" However, he worked up a different arrangement on guitar and sent me over a demo and I was like "Yes, this is fantastic now!" Our sound lends itself nicely to that sort of soft rockabilly vibe. So, even though it’s kind of twangy, I still feel like it’s very Cleo. It was surprisingly hard to sing though! 

For the final cover of the four-song EP, the band tipped their hat (a Red Sox cap, naturally) to their Boston roots by tackling the surly "X'mas Time (It Sure Doesn't Feel Like It)" by the Boston garage-rock band The Dogmatics. Originally appearing on the hard-to-find 1984 holiday compilation A Midnight Christmas Mess alongside Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Droogs and The Cheepskates, "X’mas Time" paints a dour picture of the snowswept city during the holidays, while shouting out a few of the "less touristy" local landmarks.

Kay Hanley: This song was actually our manager’s idea. I think he’s been trying to pawn this one off on us for years. I have to admit, even as a huge Boston music fan, I wasn't familiar with the song at all. At first, we ignored him, because that's what you do with managers, but we eventually came around to it. Musically, it's kind of long and doesn't go anywhere, but the vibe of it is absolutely perfect. It’s very defeated, very Boston—it doesn’t get more true-to-type than this song. I like that the lyrics are so visual for me. Filene’s Basement was my grandmother’s favorite department store. It was downtown, right at the edge of the Combat Zone, with a lot of seedy characters around there. Pine Street Inn is a homeless shelter in the South End. At the time this song was written in the early 1980s, it was in a very desolate, very bleak area. Now, the South End is one of the most gentrified areas in Boston. Pine Street Inn is currently in the middle of total opulence. The difference from then to now is absolutely nuts.

As nostalgically warm as the thick Boston threads that run through "X'mas Time" may be, the most personal musical moment on Ok Christmas lies within the band’s newly penned original, "Miss You This Christmas." Throughout the holiday heartbreaker, melancholy lyrics like "I'm not used to stringing lights alone" and "There's no cheer if you're not here" contrast smartly against the upbeat Spector-esque production touches of ringing guitars, clanging chimes and a bubbly bassline.

Kay Hanley: We really wanted to write an original for this record, so Michael Eisenstein and I made an appointment to sit down with a guitar and give it a shot. Writing a Christmas song can be really daunting because it feels like no one can bring anything new to the subject; like everything that could be said about Christmas has already been said. So I started trying to think about my boyfriend who tours a lot and is going to be gone through the holidays. I've also got two young family members who are serving overseas and I was thinking about how soldiers' partners must feel during deployment. So it all came together around hoping that your loved one will come home safe and sound for the holidays.

From the charming album artwork to the merry-making covers and the heart-warming original, Letters To Cleo have managed to craft an authentic, grade-A seasonal souvenir with Ok Christmas. They even pressed up the vinyl version of the EP on "holiday candy"-colored vinyl. Free of commercialized schmaltz and full of signature Cleo, Ok Christmas manages to find its own sonic space in the Christmas canon without just adding to all the Noel-hyped noise. However, according to Hanley, putting out a Christmas release isn’t exactly going to become a yearly tradition for the band.  

Kay Hanley: As fun as this was, we are one-and-done on the holiday EPs. A part of our annual gift is that we’re always going to try and do something different each year. However, we are hoping to have another regular, non-holiday, full-length album out sometime next year. We’ve already got like five or six songs ready to go, so that’s our plan.

The limited-edition "holiday candy" vinyl version of Letter’s to Cleo's Ok Christmas EP can be ordered directly from the band here.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More



Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman


Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage


Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns


Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."