Jane Levy? Arrived. In One Piece? Just About

Hollywood star Jane Levy made herself a household name for playing the titular role of Zoey Clarke in the NBC’s Emmy Award–winning and Golden Globe–nominated musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. She drops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about her leap into the world of acting, dreaming fearlessly and what comes next. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

This Hollywood Life

Carlos Watson: Were you always thinking about acting and doing it as a kid?

Jane Levy: No, I was really into soccer and I ended up picking my college because I could play on the soccer team. They didn’t give me a scholarship; it was division three. It’s not that cool. But I was more into sports in high school. I did theater as a kid and then as a freshman in high school, but then I moved on to soccer and then I moved back to acting.

Watson: Oh, interesting. So you see yourself as moving back to it?

Levy: I mean, as a little, little person, I always performed and would put on skits for my family and I took dance class — and I remember this thing that sounds crazy. I remember being 4 or 5 and asking my mom to get me an agent, and I don’t even know how I knew what an agent was. And she was like, “No, what are you talking about? What do you mean ‘an agent’? We’re not in Los Angeles. Continue to be a kid.” She doesn’t remember this, but I remember it. So yes, I think I’ve always wanted to be an actor deep down. But I only started to seriously pursue it when I was 18.

Watson: And what made you flip back?

Levy: I was in college near Baltimore, Maryland, at a school called Goucher. It’s a very small liberal arts school. And I played soccer. I was a jock and I was deeply unhappy. There was a deadening that happened inside of me. I was like, is this what life is going to be like? You just go to college and then you do what society tells you to do? Sitting in a class was never inspiring to me. Anyway, I was depressed.

And I remember the summer after my freshman year, I was journaling and I was thinking to myself when was the last time I really felt like myself: It was being in plays as a kid. I was like, “OK, I’m 18 years old, I might as well pursue it now because I’ll give myself four years. And if I fail, I’ll still only be 22, I could go back to” … I could figure all sorts of things out. I told my parents I was dropping out of school. They were bummed but supportive. I moved to New York City and I did a year and a half conservatory at Stella Adler. And when I was there, I was like yeah, this was correct. This is what I love.

Watson: Did you think that you were going to have as much success as you did?

Levy: I am a very determined person, and I don’t know if it was just a naive 18-year-old’s confidence or if somehow I was destined to do this thing. But I was like, I remember our teachers would say in class, “Chances are, none of you are ever going to work as an actor.” And in my head, I’d be like, “Oh, I’ll show you. I’m going to.” I would walk home from school after class — and I’m neither religious nor an atheist — but I remember praying and being like, “Please, all I want is to be an actor, please, please, please.” I don’t know who I was talking to, but …

When the Game Changed

Watson: So now what do you think worked? 

Levy: Well, for one, it’s absolute luck. I don’t know how luck works, but I’m sure that’s what happened. But also, I think maybe if I had to answer that question, I looked really young when I was 20. I looked like I was 14 and I had classical training. And so that’s the one thing I can look at that maybe gave me a leg up.

Watson: What moment was a game-changer for you? 

Levy: A couple of years ago, I was like, “I’m confused. I forgot how to approach a character. I miss reading plays. I feel so stagnant and uninspired.” So I started going to class again and since then, I got Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and I’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe, which is so unbelievable, but I really credit it to learning acting. So for me, I think that’s why I’ve had the success that I’ve had because I love the craft and I’m committed to continuing to learn. Just because you have a job on TV does not mean anything about acting, you know?

Watson: As an actor, who do you admire? 

Levy: So many. I’m going to leave this interview and I’m going to always feel like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that person.” But Chris Cooper is one of my favorite actors. I guess it also has to do with empathy. When actors have a lot of empathy … I feel changed after watching him in American Beauty. Then, Jane Fonda, I love. Viola Davis — every performance she gives is a full-body … visceral reaction. 

Watson: Where do you feel like you’ve given your best performance ever? 

Levy: I feel shy. Some of the work that I’ve done on Zoey’s has been work that I’m really proud of in that when you talk about exhilarating and scary, something that I try to set up for myself is that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that the most exciting stuff that gets captured on camera is when you really experience something, and that involves surprising yourself or being surprised by something that’s happening. 

Watson: Who’s your crew and tribe in LA? 

Levy: When I first moved to LA, I found it really hard to make friends. And I took three years until I made one friend. And now as I look back, I’m like, God, I’m so lucky that since then I have some really wonderful friendships. So, Mae Whitman, who is also on NBC on a show called Good Girls, she’s my best friend. It’s just a coincidence that our shows are back-to-back. Lauren Graham, who played my boss on Zoey’s and played Mae’s mom on Parenthood on NBC, she’s a good friend. Jenny Slate is a close friend of mine. My boyfriend is in the art world and a lot of my friends are actually in the art world. That’s a lot of my social life. It’s not Hollywood. It’s that other industry. And that’s something I love about LA.

The Starstruck Star

Watson: Have you had a wondrous celebrity meeting where you met someone you really wanted to meet or you were awed by?

Levy: Many. I mean, I did a roundtable last year with the Hollywood Reporter and I couldn’t say anything the whole time because Tiffany Haddish was on the Zoom call. I was so shocked by how much of a weirdo I was. I couldn’t make a joke. I was sweating. And then finally I told her, because I was like, “You guys are going to think I’m a psychopath because I’ve been acting so strange, but it’s just because I am starstruck. I’m fully starstruck.” She took it really well. 

Watson: If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would you get together with?

Levy: OK, Phil Jackson would be on there. And RuPaul. And Prince.

Watson: Good choice. Your name, do you have the right name for you? Is that the right name? And if not, what should you have been named?

Levy: Yeah, I feel like my name is pretty fitting.

Watson: If you had to do an alternative?

Levy: Maybe Louise.

Watson: Well, part of the reason I was asking is I do think that your name is a good name, and it’s a memorable name. I don’t know that I know a lot of Jane Levys. I remember a football player, Joe Montana, once said that he thought in addition to talent and teammates and all that, a big part of his success was his name because he thought that sportscasters liked saying his name. Any thoughts?

Levy: I love what you just said. I mean, something about my name that has meaning is that my last name is Jewish and I am half Jewish. That’s basically the only culture I feel like I have because on the other side I’m English, Irish. I’m just really American. And then, on my father’s side, I’m like, “Oh, this is what it would feel like to have a culture.”

That’s what I think of my Judaism because I’m not religious and I don’t really follow any religious practices. So I guess I’m proud of my last name because it just makes me think of my heritage and my history. But it’s also not a real last name because I believe my great-grandfather when he came from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, the name was changed to Max Levy.

Watson: The last year, if it has changed you, what’s the most significant way in which the last year has changed you?

Levy: Oh, my God. Just thinking about what it means to live in a community and how to be a good citizen of your community. There’s a lot of work to do there.

Watson: What are the most interesting things you’ve learned in this life about love?

Levy: I’m trying to think of what RuPaul says, but it’s something about it that’s so obvious, but you can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself.

Watson: OK, dreaming fearlessly: It’s hard for people to do. What’s the best advice you’d give to other people watching about what you’ve learned about not only dreaming fearlessly but bringing the dreams alive, even when it’s not always easy or straightforward?

Levy: Growth is uncomfortable. I mean, there are so many different kinds of discomfort, so I don’t want to encourage anyone to live through traumatic discomfort. That’s another story. But I think you know when you really want something more for yourself, it’s going to feel uncomfortable. And sometimes we have to be OK sitting in discomfort. That’s such a boring answer. If I heard my advice, I’d be like, “No. Something more fun.”

The Israel Model: COVID and Democracy

If free and regular elections are a hallmark of democracy, not many nations pass the test like Israel. In fact, the world’s only Jewish state probably wishes it had fewer elections: After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to cobble together a ruling coalition last week, the country could be headed toward its fifth election in two years unless opposition leader Yair Lapid can stitch together a governing alliance. But are a country’s democratic values intact if its security forces attack religious worshippers, as happened in the recent assaults on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which injured hundreds of Palestinians? Since yesterday, Israel and Islamist militant groups in Gaza have traded rockets and bombs, leaving 24 Palestinians and two Israelis dead. Take a trip to a nation that could be a model for post-COVID normalcy but is often criticized globally for how it treats its minorities. Meet the leaders lining up to shape Israel’s future, take a gander at the innovations that make the country the world’s envy, soak in its unique culture and learn about the festering wounds that taint its journey forward.

tomorrow’s top guns

These are the Israeli names to watch in the political, business, sports and entertainment realms.

Ayelet Shaked. She was Netanyahu’s justice minister from 2015 to 2019. Now, she’s threatening to bring him down. Israel’s most influential female politician, Shaked is No. 2 in Yamina, the right-wing political alliance whose leader Naftali Bennett is in talks with Lapid to form an anti-Netanyahu unity government. A former software engineer, the 45-year-old Shaked recently called Netanyahu and his wife Sara “tyrants” with a “lust for power.” But Shaked has her own ambitions and she isn’t shy about them. She has said that she sees herself becoming prime minister after Netanyahu’s exit. It’s been nearly half a century since the country’s only female leader, Golda Meir, was in charge. Could Shaked be next?

Itamar Ben-Givir. He’s been compared to leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. The Israeli lawyer-politician until recently had the portrait of an assassin who killed 29 Muslims displayed in his living room, and has called for the expulsion of Arabs who aren’t “loyal.” Ben-Gvir won a seat in Israel’s parliament after merging his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party with the Religious Zionist Party in recent elections. After a court controversially ordered the eviction of Palestinian families from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem — internationally regarded as occupied by Israel — Ben-Gvir reportedly marched through downtown Jerusalem last week with other far-right activists, who chanted “Death to Arabs.” He will be an influential voice in Israeli politics for years to come.

Pnina Tamano-Shata. She was just 3 years old when her family walked from Ethiopia to Sudan to escape the persecution of Jews before secretly flying to Israel. Now, Tamano-Shata is the most prominent voice for the 140,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, where they’re victims of systemic racism and deep-seated poverty. Last year, she was appointed immigration minister, making her the first Ethiopian-born cabinet member in Israel’s history. And even amid the political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, she has continued to welcome Jews from around the world who want to relocate to Israel.

Shari Arison. Cruise ships don’t seem environmentally friendly. But Arison, Israel’s richest woman, has long insisted that her bottom line doesn’t need to come at the cost of society’s well-being. That’s why the luxury cruise magnate, whose net worth is in the billions, is also a leading green energy investor, with money in a solar thermal power plant, biofuelswater preservation and more. But she has faced scrutiny for alleged bribery in Africa.

Timna Nelson-Levy. After winning a gold medal at the Judo Grand Slam Tel Aviv in February, the 26-year-old judoka spent days replying to messages from thrilled fans who she had missed having in the stadium due to coronavirus restrictions. At the Tokyo Olympics this summer, she’ll have the whole nation cheering for her, as she is Israel’s best hope for winning what would be the country’s second Olympic gold. Israel has previously been successful at judo, medaling five times in the summer games.

Nasreen Qadri. Born to Arab parents in the port city of Haifa, the singer is present-day Israel’s most powerful cultural bridge between Muslims and Jews. She sings in both Hebrew and Arabic, has opposed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and has performed alongside Radiohead. She has also faced criticism for performing in Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. But she insists she’s received nothing but love from Israeli citizens of all backgrounds, something the country’s political leaders can’t begin to match.

COVID-19 bellwether

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Leading the Herd. Israel is the real-world clinical trial the planet is watching. A rapid immunization program ensured that by April 3, more than 72 percent of the country’s population over the age of 16 had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. This makes it among the first countries to approach herd immunity. It is also the first country to release data on recipients of the Pfizer vaccine outside clinical trials, showing that two doses ensures 95 percent protection against the virus.

Skeptics, Stay at Home. The question of whether and when to open public spaces has tortured every country. Israel has largely reopened — albeit with restrictions — in a deliberately calibrated way that incentivizes people to get vaccinated. As early as February, the country allowed gyms, synagogues and hotels to start inviting visitors with so-called green passports — digital documents issued to those who had received jabs. That, coupled with strong outreach to vaccine-skeptical ultra-Orthodox communities, has helped the country overcome hesitancy toward immunization. Will policymakers in the U.S. and other nations grappling with vaccine skepticism follow Israel’s lead?

Spies to the Rescue. The Mossad is famous for hunting down Nazi war criminals, rescuing hostages and fighting terrorism. In 2020, it took on a new role: sourcing ventilators and COVID-19 testing kits when they were in short supply worldwide, and bringing vaccine samples from other countries to test in Israeli labs. At one point, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen had to isolate because he had been in close contact with the country’s health minister, who had tested positive. But the Mossad’s role in Israel’s COVID-19 response will have only boosted Cohen’s stature at a time he is charting his retirement — and possibly a political future. Some see him as a possible future prime minister.

startup star

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Water, Water, Nowhere … But Plenty of Drops to Drink. Israel is a dry, desert land … and an exporter of water and water technology. In fact, it earns $2 billion a year from water tech exports produced by its dizzying lineup of startups. These companies have produced everything from cutting-edge drip irrigation strategies that conserve water to industrial-scale desalination and ways to suck water out of thin air. Neighboring Jordan also relies on water supplied by Israel. All of these factors make Israel the world’s biggest agriculture success story. From Africa to India, the world is picking up tips and tech on how to increase its farm efficiency while using less water. And as the global water crisis intensifies, Israel could hold the answers to our collective survival.

Artificial Intelligence Powerhouse. The U.S. might be the global leader in artificial intelligence, but Israel — a country with the population of New Jersey — is rapidly rising as a challenger. Again, agri-tech is a key focus, such as solar-powered bee colonies that can be controlled remotely. But Israel’s mounting expertise extends to other areas too, such as the startup Percepto, which uses AI and robotics to inspect construction sites. The pandemic hasn’t hurt the demand for Israeli AI innovations, as investments in the sector have continued apace.

Neurotech. University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah describes neurotech interventions as akin to “improving our car’s performance by making adjustments under the hood.” If Farah’s right, Israel is among the world’s top brain mechanics, hosting more than 100 neurotech startups that are developing treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, designing tools to help doctors and researchers and helping professionals in different fields maximize their performance. For instance, Konstantin Sonkin, is a neuroscientist who has developed a platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” to overcome physical limitations. Read More on OZY.

culture capital

Kosherati Food. The quickest way to the heart, it is said, is through the stomach. So as Israel’s relations with neighbors like the United Arab Emirates improve, it makes sense that culinary diplomacy is one step ahead. Ellie Kriel, an Abu Dhabi-based chef, is introducing Israeli kosher delicacies to the UAE by marrying them with Emirati flavors. She calls it Kosherati cuisine. We call it delicious. Read More on OZY.

Caesarea Aqueduct Beach. Israel might be small, but with 62 miles of sandy coastline, it hosts some of the most stunning — yet lesser-known — beaches on the Mediterranean. None stands out more than Caesarea Aqueduct Beach. About 31 miles north of Tel Aviv and next to the Herodian port of Caesarea, the beach is shadowed by the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. With no promenade or restaurant to attract crowds, this beach is mostly ignored by tourists, making it perfect for a socially distant, watery getaway in the lap of history once you’re able to travel again.

Musical Mediator. You might remember Liraz Charhi from the Apple TV+ drama Tehran. But while that show is about Israel-Iran tensions, the musician-cum-actor is on a mission to bridge the divide between the two Middle Eastern nations. The Israeli artist of Persian heritage told The Guardian last year: “I don’t agree with anything that comes with seeing Iran as our enemy.” Perhaps that’s why she released an album by secretly collaborating with Iranian musicians using encrypted instant-messaging apps and transferring their payments through third countries. Groove to her music — and to the prospects of the peace she hopes it’ll nurture.

new friends, old wounds

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Mistress No More. For decades, Israel was the mistress every nation wanted to be with in private but didn’t necessarily want to acknowledge in public because of its treatment of Palestinians. Now, those clandestine relationships are being openly displayed. It’s a rare nation that can count China, Russia and the U.S. as close friends. Last year, Arab nations including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan launched formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Netanyahu has also forged strong ties with African nations such as Kenya and Rwanda, and in 2017 he became the first non-African leader to address ECOWAS, a union of West African nations. In Latin America, Paraguay, Guatemala and Honduras have backed moves to shift their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, even though the city remains contested. Read More on OZY.

Tehran Threat. But for all those distant friendships, Israel’s relations with Iran remain tense, perpetually just a trigger away from a military conflict. The countries target each other’s infrastructure, and Israel is believed to be behind audacious assassinations of Iranian atomic scientists and the remote sabotage of Tehran’s nuclear facilities as it tries to block a new deal between its archenemy and President Joe Biden’s administration in Washington. With Iran-wary Arab nations warming up to the Jewish state, Israel may be gaining a new advantage, while Iran is being backed into a potentially explosive corner.

Healing at Home. Yet as every emerging nation has discovered throughout history, global ambitions aren’t sustainable if you’re divided domestically. The rightward shift of Israel’s politics under Netanyahu has alienated its Arab citizens, who constitute 20 percent of its population. In 2018, the country passed a controversial law that established special rights for Jews and downgraded the status of the Arabic language. The siege last week of Al-Aqsa — one of Islam’s holiest sites — once again underscores the deep gashes that Israel must heal in order to answer lingering questions about its commitment to modern democracy and justice.

You’ve Already Gone Country

It’s a classic. “I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill,” Hank Williams sings, offering a breezy feel-good country song on the radio. You can almost feel the wind in your hair — windows down, beats a-blasting. While it might seem like a quintessentially American experience, it’s actually one shared around the world — from quiet morning kitchens in India to bustling evening saloons in Japan. This OZY Sunday Magazine gives you a soundtrack to wrap up the weekend right while adding some artists and international spice to your playlist. So climb into your pickup and join us for a global country music tour.

one-hand feel on the steering wheel

trends sending country music on a trip that’s impossible to forget

The Thriving Genre

During the pandemic, concerts were canceled, and music listening dropped by about 550 million streams per week from April to June of 2020, according to Billboard/MRC Data. But while dance, Latin and hip-hop/R&B suffered most, one genre remained strong: country. From mid-March to mid-June, Americans listened to about 11 percent more country music than they did pre-pandemic. Why? Explanations range from the music serving as a type of comfort food to the rise in country fans learning to stream. Whatever the reason, the internet definitely did not kill the country star.

Changing Sound

Country music is a-changin’ . . . even if the purists don’t approve. And while genre-flirting singers like Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris have been met with some criticism, there’s no denying the music known for its rural roots is gaining a foothold in cities worldwide. One of the biggest shifts has been coming from hip-hop, as trap beats, 808 kick drums, beatboxing and even Auto-Tune are joining the show. Don’t blame it on obvious culprits like Lil Nas X, who has brought hip-hop, race and sexuality to the country music conversation. Instead look for the common threads: “One thing that country and hip-hop certainly share is telling the stories of poor and working-class people,” Kevin Holt, an ethnomusicology professor at Columbia University, told Insider.

Kentucky on Our Minds

The Bluegrass State has churned out folksy jangles for some time, creating great country crossovers. Kentucky is leading an upsurge of talent with the help of famous acts like Chris Stapleton (“Tennessee Whiskey,” “Starting Over”) and Sturgill Simpson (“I Don’t Mind”), as well as less obvious coal-town crooners such as Tyler Childers and Angaleena Presley. It’s a crossroads state — part Southern, part Midwestern — with one county describing itself as “where the Bluegrass kisses the mountains.”

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I didn’t stand a chance

lend your ears to these global country stars

Bobby Cash, India

As a child growing up in Uttarakhand, Bal Kishore Das Loiwal was immersed in music, and his love of country music was established early thanks to a relative in Nashville who sent the family daily doses of American country tunes. That led to him taking his nicknames, Babu and Kish, and combining them into the stage name “Bobby Cash” before performing his first gig at Rodeo, a Tex-Mex eatery and hub for expats in Delhi, in the ’90s. The managers were so impressed they offered him a regular spot. A member of the audience, an Aussie film producer, reckoned Cash was “fair dinkum” — the real deal — and invited “the Indian Cowboy” to play at the Southern Hemisphere’s hippest country festival in Tamworth, New South Wales. More than two decades later, the unlikely country star, now 60, was included in 2018’s Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock and continues to perform live shows (online these days).

Seaforth, Australia

This duo is named after the Sydney suburb they once called home; in 2017, Tom Jordan and Mitch Thompson put down stakes in the United States. Their 2019 debut single, “Love That,” put them on the map, and Nashville has since embraced them. Their lightbulb moment? Hearing Australian country star Keith Urban for the first time. “We had to work to find it,” says Thompson. But once they did, that led them down “the rabbit hole” to other artists, from Hunter Hayes to Rascal Flatts. Their award-winning collaboration with Mitchell Tenpenny, “Anything She Says,” has surpassed 79 million on-demand streams. And this year, Seaforth added “Breakups” to their repertoire. The pair call it their “most personal song to date,” noting that it was “written from a very real place and was almost like therapy for us both in different ways.”

Kendall Elise, New Zealand

Born and raised in the Auckland suburb of Papakura, this quirky young New Zealander jumped into the country scene in 2016. Her music is a little bit country, a little bit folk and a little bit blues — you get the idea. In 2016, she made the world sway with “Heart Full of Dirt” — a honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll tune with a killer chorus: “I’d love you so much more if you were dead.”

Sir Elvis, Kenya

Imagine a club as honky-tonk as any you’d find in Tennessee, only you’re in Nairobi. The man onstage? Africa’s biggest country musician, Elvis Otieno, also known as Sir Elvis. Born in 1977 to parents who were big fans of The King — notably, Elvis Presley died the same year — Sir Elvis told Public Radio International that every time he hits the stage, “it’s always like a shock.” That’s because Kenyans love country music despite the lack of homegrown stars. Nairobi’s Elvis is on a mission to ensure Kenya remains all shook up.

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this is country music

how country culture, even outside of music, is spreading

Reggae Gone Country

If you thought Jamaica was only about reggae music, you’ve probably forgotten that the 1961 hit by Claude Gray, “I’ll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee,” became Bob Marley’s second single. Jamaica’s love for country music began in 1950 with the debut of the first commercial radio station, which repeatedly played songs by artists such as Skeeter Davis and Patsy Cline. And that fascination with country music extends to other Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia, where the genre is a national obsession: Buses are named after Jim Reeves songs, radios play 20 George Jones tracks in a row and there are endless competitions to find new rising stars with a Southern twang.

Southern Barbecue, Parisian Style

When in Paris, eat barbecue? Good ol’ Southern comfort food has found a home on the chic streets of the City of Light. The craze began in 2011, with barbecue joints sweeping the French capital, aiming to prove there is more to American cuisine than Le Big Mac . . . and the French are enjoying every finger-lickin’ bite! One restaurant even makes rabbit and waffles, a French take on the Southern classic. READ MORE ON OZY

Toto, We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore

Maybe the last place on earth you would expect to find a bar with “Kansas” in its name is Argentina. Yet that’s exactly where Buenos Aires-based Kansas Grill & Bar calls home. The restaurant serves comfort classics like slow-roasted pork ribs and baked potatoes and draws on other U.S. state names for dishes like Arizona Pasta. Next time you’re in Argentina and hankering for some good country fare, you might not have to travel far.

Something ’Bout a Honky-Tonk

Country music is the best genre for karaoke, especially if it’s sung with a red Solo cup in your hand or a George Strait impersonator leading the way. Doubt it? Ask the land of karaoke. Japan has a surprising number of saloons with bullhorns, live music, line dancing and everything else a country fan could want. A strong underground scene has been present here for decades. Some point to the presence of U.S. soldiers who exposed Japan to vignettes of American culture; others say they like country music because “it makes me feel.”

whose bed have your boots been under?

country music isn’t immune to a little controversy

Women on the Radio

Country music’s deep-seated sexism is no secret: The genre has earned that dubious reputation through exposés about the practices of country radio stations. But why? In 2015, a radio host declared that songs by women were the “tomatoes” in the salad of a good radio show. He exposed a long-held belief that while women are the dominant target demographic of radio listeners, they don’t like listening to female voices. A new generation of female country stars isn’t ready to accept that narrative. When a radio host tweeted, applauding the “courage” of another station for playing two ladies back-to-back, female stars like Kelsea Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves spoke up, pointing out that without radio play, female singers will never get a chance at equal footing.

Racist Rhetoric

What does accountability look like in the country music industry? It’s a question many are asking after Morgan Wallen, who cultivated a bad-boy image while reaching more than 3 billion on-demand streams for his music, was filmed using the N-word on a drunken night in Nashville. Wallen has since apologized in an Instagram video, and has avoided the limelight while promising to do better. “I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me. But for today, please don’t,” Wallen said. Many stations took his songs off the radio for weeks, but that didn’t stop his second album, Dangerous, from dominating the charts. Black country singer Mickey Guyton slammed Wallen, noting how she’s endured racism in the industry for a decade. “You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis,” Guyton tweeted. She also pushed back against those who claimed that Wallen’s comments didn’t represent “country music.” “It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth,” she noted.

The Irony of Ignorance

The “twang” that country music is famous for actually comes from blues music steeped in West African musical traditions. Enslaved Africans in the Americas developed the banjo, the backbone for that infamous twang. Country music has long been pioneered and shaped by Black artists, even if they don’t always get the attention and recognition they deserve. Black musician Lesley Riddle was one such innovator. He went on song-finding missions across Appalachia in the late 1920s and ’30s, learning tunes that forever shaped the canon of country music.

Their Claim to Name?

Country group Lady Antebellum was one of the first acts to respond to George Floyd’s death, vowing to drop the latter part of their band’s name and instead go by “Lady A.” However, Seattle-based blues singer Anita White has been performing under that name for almost 30 years. Now, the two Lady A’s are suing each other for the right to perform under the name. The band members refused to change their name or pay White, who asked for $10 million in exchange for the name. When the 62-year-old Black artist wouldn’t cave, they sued her. Like Wallen, the controversy hasn’t much affected the group’s popularity.

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you got all of my attention

all eyes are on these rising country music stars

Lil Nas X

The 22-year-old Black star shot to fame with “Old Town Road.” The song immediately hit the Billboard country music chart, but it was removed after Billboard informed Nas that his inclusion had been a mistake. Nas got the last laugh, performing a remixed version with Billy Ray Cyrus at the 2019 Country Music Awards — and winning Musical Event of the Year to boot. Whatever genre he’s in, Nas has remained outspoken, with his March music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” drawing fire from religious folks who found his dance with the devil deeply offensive and sacrilegious.

Mickey Guyton

If you watched the recent Academy of Country Music Awards (ACMs), you might have caught 37-year-old Guyton performing her song “Hold On.” For The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, she sang “Black Like Me,” a song released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder. The song helped her become the first Black solo artist to earn a Grammy nomination in the country category, and her extended play record, Bridges, is blowing up.

Jimmie Allen

The first Black man to be named New Artist of the Year at the 2021 ACMs, Allen understands the historical importance of his achievement all too well. As a young man, he struggled to see how he could succeed as a country music singer — until, that is, his dad shared with him the music of Charley Pride, a trailblazing Black country artist. The 34-year-old Allen grew up in Delaware with dreams of winning an ACM award, and he’s now gotten to perform with his personal hero, Pride.

Kat & Alex

You might recognize their names from Season 18 of American Idol. The newlyweds are looking to join other country alumni like Kelly Clarkson as star graduates of the hit TV competition. Both grew up in Miami — Alex is of Puerto Rican descent and Kat is Cuban American. The duo signed to Sony Music Nashville in February and, nine months later, did a rare thing in country music by releasing their debut track, “How Many Times,” in both English and Spanish.

Travis Yee

San Francisco native Travis Yee is part of a generation of singers hoping to break big by starting out on TikTok and YouTube. He goes by the username @asiancountrysinger and went viral for his cover of Cardi B’s “WAP” in the style of Garth Brooks. The artist with Chinese, Japanese and Korean ancestry gets millions of views on TikTok, and his covers even drew the attention of Brooks himself. Yee is currently working on releasing original music. He tells OZY that his secret to viral success is letting people see the “rawness and realness” of his dream to be a bona fide country singer. READ MORE ON OZY

The Monk Who’s Helping the World Navigate Meditation, One Day at a Time

With his soothing voice and guided meditations, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe has, so far, helped 70 million people from 190 countries to explore the world of calm. He pops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about the need for meditation, how to take away the loneliness from the phenomenon, the importance of being calm and his new Netflix show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Getting/Being Closer to Home

Carlos Watson: Where are you located?

Andy Puddicombe: So we just recently moved from LA to Portugal. So I’m just west of Lisbon. I’m on the coast, out in the countryside, and enjoying a very different kind of life from LA.

Watson: What is countryside life like in Portugal?

Puddicombe: There are different types of countryside. I mean, it is super provincial. Last week, the kids were on Easter holiday from school and we went and stayed at an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it’s just olive groves and orange orchards. And then there’s countryside like this, like where we are now, half an hour away from Lisbon. So really kind of pretty close. And yet you’re in the middle of a forest, kind of near the ocean. So it feels like you’re connected but you’re disconnected just enough.

Watson: And what made you guys do it? Was it the pandemic that catalyzed something?

Puddicombe: So we we’re from the U.K. as a family. We’ve been living in the U.S. for eight years, and California has been an amazing home to us. But we’re far from family. Our parents are getting a little older. Some are getting quite unwell. And I think like a lot of people during the pandemic, it was a cause for pause and to think about what was most important to us.

As much as we enjoyed the Californian lifestyle, actually the most important thing was being close to our family. And I think we became so enamored by that lifestyle of the sunshine, being able to take the kids surfing, mountain bike … We were kind of like, “OK, so how can we be as close as possible to the U.K. but still kind of have that lifestyle as a family?” And Portugal kind of came out tops.

Watson: Did you guys Airbnb it when you first got there, or did you guys know what to do? 

Puddicombe: It was wild. So we had planned to kind of move later in the year, and then the whole Brexit kind of thing was happening. The British government passed the freedom of movement kind of bill. And we realized if we didn’t get here by the end of the year, it actually was going to be quite problematic to sort of settle in Europe. So in the space of 10 weeks, we flew over here twice in the middle of COVID.

The Demystifying of Meditation 

Watson: Tell me about Headspace.

Puddicombe: Yeah. I mean, so many different ways of looking at it, Carlos. I think most people know it as a meditation app. For me, it’s so much broader than that. I like to think about it as a way of demystifying meditation, but also kind of making mindfulness more accessible, helping people and giving them a framework.

I feel excited when I look back over the years and what’s to come. I feel excited by people getting to know themselves better, being a little less critical of themselves, being a little less judgmental of themselves. But also, learning to listen to their own mind. And in learning to listen to their own mind, more willing to listen to others. And in listening to others, becoming more compassionate, more empathetic, better understanding where people are coming from in their life. So, it’s a very long-winded way. I don’t know if I would say it like that at a dinner party, but that’s how I think about it.

Watson: And give me even a little more color on it.

Puddicombe: In terms of a community, we have a community of about 70 million people in over 190 countries around the world now. And the company is … we’re about 350, 370, mostly located in LA. But also San Francisco, London and New York. And it’s funny, I still meet people on the street and because when they sit down and listen to the app, all they hear is my voice. And they genuinely think it’s still just me and Rich, my business partner, just in our office or garage at home, making this. Turns out, it takes quite a lot of people to really make it work. So it’s a big team effort.

Watson: And how did you guys get started? Were you guys buddies growing up, or how did you guys come together to build this thing?

Puddicombe: So, I had come back from my studies as a monk and I was back in the U.K. and I was seeing people one-to-one in the clinic. But I was looking for a way to take it beyond that one-to-one. There was this skill that I’ve learned that I genuinely believe could be learned by anyone. It was timeless, it was universal, and I didn’t really know how to do that. I didn’t have the skills to do that. And a guy, who was coming to me, said, “Hey, I know this guy. He’s a great guy. He’s completely burnt out from advertising. He really could do with learning meditation. And I think he’d have a lot to add to your mission, what you’re thinking of doing.”

So we met and we got on … immediately. And, the very first time I met him, Rich said, “We should do the NikePlus of meditation. We should put it on an app.” I didn’t even know what an app was. I didn’t have a smartphone. I was really pretty green with any of that. And I taught him meditation for about three months and the change in his life was so profound … it doesn’t always happen that quick, but it did for him. He said, “OK, I’m all in. Let’s do something together.” So we started that about 12 years ago now.

Watson: Why do you think it succeeded?

Puddicombe: I’ll give you the list of things, but, sometimes, actually there’s a certain kind of magic to timing that we can take no credit for. It would not have happened without the help, love, support of all the people around us. No question. On a more practical level, I would say authenticity in science. We weren’t presenting something new to the world. We were taking something that’s been around for two and a half, 3,000 years. And we were presenting it in a different way.

Watson: How important do you think your voice was in all of this?

Puddicombe: It’s a really hard thing for me to assess myself, because I don’t know. It’s just how I speak. So I grew up, as they say, in the southwest of England. And it’s quite a strong farming community down there. And, they speak in a very different way. It’s just living abroad for a long time, it’s slowly worked its way out of the system. Someone said to me the other day if I was still talking like that, Headspace would never have been what it was. And it might be true, but this is the voice my parents gave me. And it’s the one you get to listen to.

On Living and Leaving Life as a Monk

Watson: How did you get into this in the first place?

Puddicombe: Yeah. It’s pretty wild. … Again, I point to my mom. I think we started meditating with her, Carlos, when we were 10 or 11 years old when my parents were going through a divorce. And that planted the seed for sure. But then a little bit in life, I got an extra kind of push. I was standing with a group of friends outside a party, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and a drunk driver crashed into the group.

I was one of three that didn’t get hit by the car, but pretty much everyone else did. A couple of friends died. A lot of people went into the hospital kind of really critically injured. For me that was a real moment of kind of reckoning, and a lot of soul-searching at an age where I wasn’t really equipped for soul-searching. I was 18 years old, 19 years old maybe. It set me off on a path where the only thing that made sense was to go and try and understand my mind in a way that I couldn’t from books.

Watson: Yeah, but not everybody decides to become a celibate monk …

Puddicombe: Yeah. I hear it. It’s a funny thing. I tend to be very spontaneous. I tend to listen to my heart, my gut and just jump into things. And sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t, and I took the same approach to being a monk. At the moment, nothing else made sense to me. To me, it felt like a legit calling.

Watson: How long were you a monk for? And what’s it like being a monk?

Puddicombe: I think it’s actually a fascinating thing. That whole journey was about 10 years of going away and training to become a monk and then train as a novice monk and eventually becoming a fully ordained monk. I think during that time, I obviously learned a lot about myself. I think I learned a lot as well about that journey. The truth is it was really challenging to begin with. And it took a long time to settle in.

I don’t know how you think about it Carlos, but I always thought meditation was this process of sitting down, closing the eyes and then just kind of shutting off the mind. And because of that, it was a painful and incredibly disappointing process because I thought I was terrible at it, because I couldn’t switch my mind off. And then all of a sudden I found warmth in my meditation, I found a kindness in my meditation, I found love in my meditation.

Watson: So what made you finally leave the monastery?

Puddicombe: I was living in Moscow, and I was meeting a lot of people who were really benefiting from meditation, but who didn’t necessarily, they didn’t want to hang out with a Buddhist monk and they weren’t necessarily wanting to be Buddhist, they weren’t necessarily wanting to learn all the ritualism of Buddhism. But the meditation was making a difference. And it just got me, it was the beginning of starting to think, OK, is there a different way of presenting it?

If this is an obstacle to people learning an invaluable life skill, then maybe I should think twice about, how I’m dressed and what I’m wearing. So I spoke to my teacher and it was an interesting conversation. He had his doubts, but at the same time he was very supportive, but that was really the beginning of that journey of thinking how to demystify, how to take it out of a religious context, put it into a secular context, and just try and make it more accessible for folks.

Watson: Tell me about this new TV show you’re doing.

Puddicombe: We got together with Netflix a couple of years ago. When the pandemic started, we sat down together, the various teams, and said, “OK, well, what could we do to help people at home right now?” Headspace has always been heavy on animation; it’s kind of how we try to convey a lot of our ideas and to make it feel more playful, more accessible. So we said, “Well, let’s make an animated TV show.” And we called it the Headspace Guide to Meditation. And it was really just another medium, another platform for sharing this thing.


Dr. Sanjay Gupta Now Knows the World Better by Seeing How People Evaluate Risk

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, associate professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine and chief medical correspondent for CNN, became a household name for his analytical breakdown of the medical world for people around the world since 9/11. He pops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about the takeaways from COVID-19 and how to stay sharp. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

On the Lessons From COVID-19

Carlos Watson: Last year has people thinking about a whole lot of things, including location and whether or not they’re in the right place. Would you ever live anywhere else? I know you’ve been in Atlanta for a good while. 

Sanjay Gupta: About 20 years now. Yeah. It’s funny. I’m not from here. In fact, I had never even been here before I decided to move. I came for an interview at Emory and it just sort of went from there. But I think I could live just about anywhere. I think it’s amazing what this year has taught us in terms of … I got a little studio in the house because of COVID, and can really … I mean, you got good connectivity and good camera and stuff like that, you can broadcast from anywhere. I’d still want to be obviously close to a big hospital because I’m still operating. But, yeah, besides that, be anywhere.

Watson: Did you find that your work slowed in any meaningful or tangible way during the heat of COVID?

Gupta: I think it was most of April and some of May where essentially our hospital became a COVID hospital. So elective operations were not happening. Now, it’s interesting. We also do a lot of trauma. I’m a neurosurgeon, but a lot of the trauma comes from car accidents, and people weren’t driving. So you had this sort of reduction of both elective and traumatic and urgent. Everything sort of went down at the same time COVID was happening. So, yeah, it was really sort of shut down. And it was sort of a little bit like this: We’d come back and then have to sort of slow down again.

Watson: Will this year change anything about how you practice neurosurgery? 

Gupta: I think it absolutely will. I mean, it’s funny because there was surprisingly slow acceptance and sort of embracing of telehealth. And I really never understood why, because there are so many advantages. This [COVID-19] really accelerated it. In fact, I can tell you, I did a story about this. There were 80, 8-0, telehealth visits between January 1 of 2020 and March 1 of 2020. Between March to the end of May, there were 80,000 telehealth visits at our … What’s amazing to me is now all these people who are reticent to embrace it, they can see patients. The patients don’t have to come to the hospital and park, and, “Am I in hallway 2F or 2K? I can’t find my clinic.” It’s ridiculous. It’s a terrible user experience for patients. Telehealth can be great. There’s obviously some things you still have to come in for. But a lot we can do via telehealth.

Watson: When did you know that COVID was going to be a really serious, impactful, dramatic event?

Gupta: I never anticipated this, Carlos, to be fair. I really didn’t. I think we always sort of are thinking of the 1918 flu pandemic and other smaller pandemics since then. And always wonder in the back of our minds, I mean, 1918 there was a pandemic; 1968 there was a pandemic—that’s 50 years later; 2018, is there going to be another one? There are all of these various sorts of iterations that go into people’s minds, some logical, some sort of more superstitious almost. But I’ve covered a lot of these stories. I was in west Africa for Ebola. I was in Vietnam and Laos for avian flu. I was in Mexico for H1N1, SARS, MERS. I’ve covered all of these.

I think my antenna went up earlier because of that. And whenever you hear about something emanating, that’s spreading so quickly in China, you know it’s going to be traveling all over the world. I mean, there’s so many people moving in and out of China at any given time. So I think sort of mid-January, it was becoming pretty clear. Hospitals were being built in China, they were buying all this personal protective equipment. So even though there wasn’t this outward concern, their actions were clearly showing that there was a lot of concern. I was following it very closely, Carlos, from that time on.

Watson: Years from now when you look back, what do you expect will be your two or three biggest takeaways or most interesting takeaways when you think about this period?

Gupta: There were two things. One, is how we as human beings really evaluate risk. If I tell you something is 0.5% lethal, a certain segment of the population is going to say 1 in 200 people are going to die, “We better be careful, we better really protect ourselves.” Another group will say, “So I’m 99.5% good. What’s the big deal?” It’s the same objective data. If you’re going to be honest and serious about communicating, the objective data is the currency, but you have to understand the subjective interpretation of that. And people’s subjective interpretations are very much dependent on who they are, their lives. So it sounds fundamental, but that was a real sort of takeaway.

The second thing is this is a novel coronavirus. Everyone knows coronavirus; sometimes you may gloss over the word and “novel.” Novel means something new, we’ve never seen this before. When was the last time you experienced something for the first time? If you were a knowledgeable person, it can almost get in your way. And here’s why: Because you hear coronavirus from China and right away, a knowledgeable person will say, well that’s going to be SARS. SARS was a coronavirus from China, we’re going to put this in the SARS box and right away you start treating it as if it’s SARS. Or, it’s looking like a pandemic, I’m going to put this in the H1N1 box and start treating it like that.

Both of those would be totally wrong. I really think the idea of, can you actually treat something as novel, like, clear your preconceived notions. It’s a surmountable task, but it’s an audacious thing to sort of get over. I’m going to cast away those things and really approach this tabula rasa. We don’t do that … but that was a takeaway.

On Rising to the Top — And Staying Sharp

Watson: Were you predestined to be a doctor? 

Gupta: I think once I decided this, it seemed pretty likely. I mean, neither one of my parents are doctors. There’s no medical people in my family, so there wasn’t that sort of … from a very young childhood … that pushed toward that. In fact, if anything, it was going to be either more math … mathematics professor, my father; or engineering — my mom’s the first woman ever hired as an engineer in the automotive industry. So that’s a big part of our family.

But I fell in love with medicine. My grandfather, my mom’s father, had a stroke when I was 13 years old. We’re very close; I spent a lot of time in the hospital, sort of realized that this was a sort of profession, this was a thing that you could do. And the doctors who took care of them were really empathetic people who made an impression on me. So I think at that point, I sort of decided I wanted to be a doctor.

Watson: And how did you decide to go on TV?

Gupta: It was kind of serendipitous in some ways. I was obviously going to medical school and doing my residency. I was also very interested in health policy and I was writing a lot of health policy papers. And I went to work at the White House for a period of time as a White House fellow with health care policy sort of in mind … this is mid- to late-’90s. And at that time I was writing speeches.

Tom Johnson, who used to run CNN, had also been a White House fellow. He had come to me at some point during that time in 1997 and said, “What do you think about trying to talk about some of these issues on television?” I thought that was interesting but not quite what I had in mind. I was back in my practice residency at Michigan, and then came to Atlanta to take a job in neurosurgery and ran into Tom Johnson.

This is August of 2001, so just think about what time in the world this is. And I was going to come on to basically do commentary on health policy. That was it. It was the first year of the first term of W’s presidency. Talk about health care, how it’s going to change, that was it. And then three and a half weeks later, 9/11 happens. Then, all of a sudden, you’re the doctor working at an international news network. They’re probably not going to be talking about health policy for a while: Do you want to cover and talk about some of these other things that are happening in the world? And that was sort of it.

Watson: So what made you decide to write this new book on staying sharp? 

Gupta: Well, the brain is my first love. In some ways, it’s a longstanding love of the brain. I sort of straddle these two worlds — of journalism, but also neuroscience, neurosurgery, all of that. And I’m constantly learning things in the neuroscience world that are happening at a pretty high scientific level but are really fascinating things that have not yet been translated to the lay audience.

Now there is very clear evidence that at any age, a healthy brain, whatever, could grow new brain cells. It’s an audacious sort of thing. So that just inspired me as I hear more and more of these researchers talk about that at neuroscience meetings. It was about a two-and-a-half-year journey to go talk to many of these scientists. “What do you mean exactly? By the way, if you can grow new brain cells, how do you do it?” That was the follow-up part of the conversation. And eventually, it felt like a book first. 

Watson: It’s good to hear there’s such a thing as neurogenesis … 

Gupta: So when we talk about neurogenesis, there are two things. One is, are you going to keep driving the same road and really learn that road well? Or are you going to start to build new roads, new cities, new towns, new countries in your brain and get to visit those places? That’s what neurogenesis really is. People call it cognitive resilience. But it’s this idea of really increasing the function of that other 90 percent of your brain.

Why do that?

Well, two primary reasons. One is that it’s kind of fun, first of all. It’s joyous to actually be able to visit these other cities. But I think more tangibly, you connect dots that you would otherwise miss. And that’s connected. No one else sees it. I do. That’s how it comes together. The second thing, I think, more tangible as you get older, people think about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So if the metaphor is that city, you’re driving those roads and then one day there’s a blockage in the form of an amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s. You know that road well, but it’s blocked. What are you going to do now?

Well, if you spent the earlier parts of your life building a bunch of other roads, other cities, other destinations, you essentially can get around that. So you still may even have plaque, but you don’t have cognitive dysfunction. I just find that so inspiring. We spent $500 million trying to figure out a drug that could get rid of the amyloid plaque. But what if you really didn’t need to get rid of it; you just needed to figure out how to keep your cognitive function? 

On Serving the Public

Watson: Sanjay, I know a couple of years ago, President Obama was new in office and was interested in you joining him as surgeon general. Have you thought about service in public service in some way, either running for office or accepting a cabinet appointment?

Gupta: I love public service. I would definitely get back into public service. I don’t think I would run for office. I really salute the people who do that. I think it’s such a huge endeavor. I’m still a doctor. I still practice medicine. 

Watson: What would thrill you? Are you thinking about a health and human services kind of thing?

Gupta: I think so. You know, I mean, I think the only downside of certain jobs is that you don’t necessarily have mandate teeth. I think, as a journalist, what’s important is that we are often the first to see a problem emerge, and we are often the first to talk to the people who understand this problem, and even see solutions emerge. But I don’t have policy teeth to do anything about it. So, you know, I’m in my 50s now, and I think I’ve seen a lot, and I feel like I know a lot. Could I take some of that to a public service position? Yeah, I think … a job where you had some ability to actually execute solutions.

Marcus Scribner Was Going to Quit Acting. Then ‘Black-ish’ Happened

Marcus Scribner, who became a household name while playing the oddball of the family, Junior, in Black-ish, drops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about wading into Hollywood, struggling not to give up and the woke Gen Z who have the power of technology on their side. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Wading Through the Hollywood Shuffle

Carlos Watson: Hey, Marcus, what do you think you would have done if acting hadn’t jumped off? And if you hadn’t booked something like Black-ish, which obviously has become such a phenomenon, what do you think you’d be doing right now?

Marcus Scribner: I honestly don’t know. And I always kind of use this to tell people, when I have young people come up to me and ask me, “Hey, how do I get into acting? What do I do? Where do I start?” I started acting when I was around 7 years old. And it was definitely a long, hard journey. Every single week, just like hours upon hours of getting better and working on scripts and practicing for auditions and trying to stay just active in the scene at all times.

Around the time I booked Black-ish, I was actually thinking about giving up on acting and just going to high school. It was taking up a lot of my time. And I was like, all right, I need to buckle down so I can get into some colleges and get good at this. But then I booked Black-ish and then all my dreams just came true. So I always tell people, never give up on your dreams. If you just keep on pushing, then you’ll eventually achieve them. So I honestly don’t know what I would be doing right now if I wasn’t acting. Probably … I don’t know. When I was younger, I always said I was going to be a doctor of some sort. I don’t know if that would have actually panned out, but I love teeth. So maybe I’d be a dentist. I don’t know.

Watson: Did you know when you went into the audition … and maybe this is a ridiculous way to say it … but when did you know that you were going to book it? Was it literally not until they called you? Did you start to have a feeling in the early auditions that there was some fire there?

Scribner: Oh, dang. I don’t think I ever realized it. I felt like every time I went in there, I was just there. … Everybody was laughing and we were having a great time. And Anthony was in the rooms at the time, Anthony Anderson. So, I always got great feedback from him in the room. He was like, “That’s perfect. That’s it. That’s Junior.” And I was like, “OK, all right, well this is looking good. This is looking promising.”

But I don’t know. I feel like after all the experience of going to other auditions and stuff, you always get those. You don’t always, but a lot of times you get those positive feedbacks, so you go really far in the process and you just don’t end up booking the role. So I never really knew that I was going to book the role for sure. I got confident when I got the phone call from them and they were like, “You booked it.” Then I was like, “All right. I got this, let’s go.” And it’s funny, because I’d never been that far in the process. So I didn’t know how things went. I thought once you got on the television show, you were just set. It was like, all right. I’m on TV now, it’s over. But I’m fortunate enough that Black-ish went the distance, and just kept on going for years and years. 

Watson: In retrospect, was there anything special that you did that you would whisper to a younger version of you? Like, “Do this,” if it’s that audition? Or do you think it was kind of … you did the same thing, but it just happened to work this time?

Scribner: I kind of did the same thing that we learned, luckily, talking with my parents and everything. The biggest thing that is also something is to do your research on the people that you’re meeting with. And find common ground, because obviously the better your knowledge is of the situation, where you are in the room … And it’s kind of harder as a younger person, when you’re just a kid and trying to figure out how to make conversation with adults. But finding common ground through research. So, my dad always taught me that, and it really helped, and it worked. I walked in the room, and I was like … I knew that Anthony and Kenya [Barris] were from LA as well, so I walked in, I was like, “Westside.” And they were like, “That was corny. You’re Junior.” So I was just like, “OK, perfect.” So it ends up working out sometimes.

The Life of a Star

Watson: What’s the coolest thing that happens when you’re a star, that, if you went back and told 12-year-old Marcus, “Hey, here’s what’s going to happen when you blow up.” What would surprise you?

Scribner: Well, 12-year-old Marcus would probably be most hyped about the guided tours through Disneyland and getting to go through the back exits. I’ve never felt more like a celebrity. You literally get to go through the back of the rides and stuff. This was when we were filming Black-ish in Disneyworld, so we really got the good treatment. Disneyworld was like, “We’ll treat you right.” That was wild.

And 12-year-old Marcus would probably freak out. But another crazy part. … all the free stuff is kind of wild. Eventually, you just don’t even want free stuff anymore, it’ll just be piled up. You got to get it out of the house. That’s another thing that’s probably a shocker to 12-year-old Marcus, who was saving up money to buy candy at the liquor store. So, yeah.

Watson: That’s great. And now, what happens to the relationship in your family? What happens when you’re still 14, 15, 16 years old, but all of a sudden you’re bringing in real money, people recognize you, but you’ve got a mom, you’ve got a dad, you’ve got a sister. What happened to the family and friendship dynamics?

Scribner: I know that I’m fortunate and blessed to be from Los Angeles. So, all the entertainment industry stuff happens here, and so life just went on. It was just a normal thing. My mom was still on me to focus on school 100 percent. I still had chores around the house. So just, I think having good guidance, and people around you who just surround you and treat you the same. I feel like the same normal person. I just walk down the street, and I’m chilling.

I go everywhere by myself, I don’t care. I do my grocery shopping. Nothing really changed, I feel. And I think I’ve just been fortunate enough to just be surrounded by the same people who I grew up with, and have parents who really cared, and guided me and taught me. So, yeah, I think things really didn’t change, which is kind of nice.

Watson: And were either of your parents in entertainment?

Scribner: No. No. Neither of them were in entertainment. So that’s why it was a big leap. I think they told me, they were like, “Well, we’re in Los Angeles. Might as well just, I guess, put them in acting and see what happens.” So I tried it out, ended up loving it, and here we are now. So I guess just going for it is really the message of that.

Weathering the Cultural Shift

Watson: Now, talk to me a little bit, if you would, about Black Lives Matter and last summer. Were you involved with that?

Scribner: I think it was impossible not to think about it and see it, which was brilliant because I feel like we as Black people have been seeing this for years and years, and it’s amazing that people are finally waking up and realizing what’s been happening. But yeah, I definitely was involved and excited that the wave started and that we were able to get our message across, and demand freedom, and demand rights for people who have existed and helped to build this country into … to make it what it is and shape the culture. So, yeah, I was definitely involved, and very excited about the movement that we saw.

Watson: When you talk to your friends who aren’t Black, do you feel like last summer did actually change the way … not just how people think, but the way they live in the world, the way they treat other people, the way they engage?

Scribner: I think that, culturally, we’ve been going through a shift for a long time. At least my generation definitely has been changing the narrative, I think, and shifting that dynamic a lot more, which is beautiful. And I think that the recent Black Lives Matter movement really made people more conscious and want to learn more and know more and be respectful of others.

Not only Black lives, but people of all races, and sexual orientations and whatnot. So I think it definitely made people more conscious. I can’t say for sure. I can’t really get into their minds, and know, is this affecting things? But I would hope so. And I would hope that after thinking on it, and taking in all the information that we’ve presented, and things that we’ve demanded, that people really start to change.

I think the issue is it doesn’t start with people. I think we have to dismantle it systemically because systemic racism is really where it all spawns from. And I feel like a lot of people have unconscious biases and things like that, that are just … It’s just difficult. Racism isn’t something that you’re born with, it’s taught. So we really have to dismantle the way that the system works in general.

Can Germany Lead Without Merkel?

When Angela Merkel took office in 2005, it was difficult to imagine Germany with a female leader. Now it’s near impossible to imagine Deutschland without her, but the Mutti or mom of her nation plans to exit the top job after elections this September. The German chancellor has led the world’s fourth-largest economy for more than half of its post-reunification life. She staved off populism, welcomed refugees and calmly guided Europe through multiple crises. But will her legacy last? Consider the people, trends and shifts that will shape a German future after Merkel — and glimpse a world without her steady hand.

faces to follow

Armin Laschet. The race to replace Merkel was always going to start with the leadership election for her party, the Christian Democratic Union. Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, won that vote in January. CDU leaders on Monday affirmed the choice of Laschet as the party favorite to succeed the chancellor. While the 60-year-old is often described as a Merkel loyalist, he has voiced his own political views — whether it’s calling for “zero tolerance” against terrorism or how to enforce lockdowns as the country battles a fresh COVID-19 surge. Can he escape his mentor’s shadow and carve out his own identity nationally?

Markus Söder. The 54-year-old Nuremberg-born leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) announced Sunday he wants to be chancellor, making him Laschet’s biggest threat. The CDU has been in power for nearly 16 years with its smaller alliance partner, the CSU. But the balance of power within that partnership is shifting. The CDU suffered devastating losses in two recent state elections. A corruption scandal involving COVID-19 mask procurements isn’t helping. That gives Söder further bargaining power, and voters seem to prefer him to Laschet. Bavaria’s politicians, however, have yet to win a postwar chancellorship.

Annalena Baerbock. Merkel has proven how it’s foolish to count out women on the rise, even if they’re not the most obvious contenders. And no one’s rising faster than Baerbock, joint leader of the Greens, which trounced Merkel’s party in the industrialized and wealthy state of Baden-Württemberg recently. They are now snapping at the ruling coalition’s heels, polling at 23 percent nationally compared to the CDU/CSU alliance’s 27 percent. The Greens plan to announce their candidate for chancellor on April 19. It’s a toss-up between Baerbock and party co-chair Robert Habeck. The 40-year-old Baerbock is convinced she has what it takes reach new heights. After all, she was once an elite trampolinist.

Naomi Seibt. Young, blonde and from northern Europe, with a passionate voice on climate change. That’s where her similarities with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg end. The Greens might be rising in Germany, but not everyone’s convinced by science. Seibt, 20, has been called the “anti-Greta” and is fast emerging as the youthful face of the global climate change denial movement. She’s partnered with the conservative U.S.-based Heartland Institute and expressed admiration of white nationalists. But question her, and she won’t shy from using Thunberg’s own famous words against you: “How dare you?” she thundered at probing journalists.

Kevin David Lehmann. He’s even younger than Seibt. With a net worth of $3.3 billion, the 18-year-old recently became the world’s youngest billionaire, displacing Kylie Jenner, after inheriting 50 percent of his father’s dm drugstore-style retail chain. The company draws in $12 billion in revenue annually. Germany already has a history of wealthy scions — like Susanne Klatten, the BMW heiress who’s the country’s richest woman and a key CDU funder. Could Lehmann match her influence someday?

business bets

The Next Silicon Valley? The pandemic showed the value of resilience and sustainability. Germany has proven it can offer both. Deutschland could attract top tech talent thanks to how it handled the pandemic economically — with a lower layoff rate than most countries thanks to state support — and R&D spending comparable to the United States. A recent Startup Heatmap Europe study ranked Berlin second only to London among European cities hospitable to startups. It scored high for job creation, industry connections and global connectivity. And as management consultant McKinsey has predicted, Berlin is looking to boost its workforce by 100,000 jobs and become Europe’s startup mecca.

King Coal Comes? Merkel took some of the world’s most aggressive steps to cut carbon emissions and invested heavily in the green economy. But environmental activists view her CDU successor, Laschet, with suspicion, given the minister president was the son of a coal miner. The German wing of Fridays for the Future, the global Thunberg-inspired youth movement against climate change, has raised the alarm about his moves as NRW premier. It’s possible Laschet could pull Germany back from some environmental commitments if he becomes chancellor — although he also could feel pressure to appease the Greens should they gain seats in the September elections.

Business Class Airbnbs. Dustin Figge’s mother thought he was crazy to leave his cushy job in San Francisco to return to Cologne and work on a startup. But the venture he co-founded, Homelike, has raised at least $18 million from investors and is active in more than 400 European cities. Homelike made inroads with the corporate temporary housing market, providing a place for transitory workers to lay their head. Demand is high, as the globalized economy increases the number of employees abroad even as freelancers embrace digital nomad life. Homelike, says Figge, is responding to the needs of a new generation of business travelers who put a premium on flexibility — a value the pandemic underscored.

Battle for Berlin’s Soul. Spätis, family-run convenience stores which also serve as meeting points for cash-strapped locals, have been the soul of Berlin since the 19th century. Not anymore. In May 2019, a ruling by the Administrative Court of Berlin cracked down on spätis open on Sundays — removing one of their busiest days and making it harder for them to stay afloat. Typically eastern German establishments, spatis often offer relaxed seating for customers to drink cheap beers straight from the bottle. But now they’re struggling in the face of growing gentrification, booming rental costs and tighter regulations. The pandemic may have provided the corner stores a lifeline, though, as Berliners are anxious to get staples quickly without standing in line for a supermarket.

the world watches

Macron, the New Merkel? Looking to step into the role of Europe’s leader after Merkel leavesFrench President Emmanuel Macron has been preparing for this moment — whether it’s through more assertive plans for the European Union or playing messiah to an explosion-scarred Lebanon. But Germany still has the much larger economy. And Macron’s recent divisive rhetoric, which many have seen as Islamophobic, hasn’t helped his image as a liberal succesor to Merkel. Germany’s next chancellor could use those points to stop Macron’s attempts at grabbing Europe’s reins.

Winds of Change? For years, Germany has officially defined its relationship with Russia with the concept of “Modernisierungspartnerschaft,” meaning “partnership for modernization.” If that’s hard to pronounce, it’s been nearly impossible to truly execute amid frequent tensions — from Russia spying on Merkel to the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who sought treatment in Berlin. Still, Merkel has tried to keep the relationship afloat. Laschet and Söder both support the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. But the Greens have promised to scrap the pipeline if they do well in September and enter government, even if only as an influential coalition partner.

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The New Wall. As with Russia, Merkel’s Germany has pursued a strong working relationship with China. A German-led EU went one step further at the start of this year, inking a major investment deal with Beijing. But faced with growing concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the EU recently imposed its first major sanctions against China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Beijing retaliated with sanctions of its own against EU officials. In a call last week with Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged the “challenges” facing the relationship. Laschet has appeared soft on China in the past, but the new wall between Beijing and Berlin won’t be brought down easily. Walls seldom are, as Germans know only too well.

Yesterday, Once More? It would be tempting to think the U.S. and principal allies like Germany can roll back years of bad blood under Donald Trump and pretend it’s 2016 again. But Biden has continued with Trump’s demand that European NATO members raise their defense spending. His administration also wants Germany to end the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia. Both areas of contention aren’t going anywhere. German trust in America has taken a real beating over the past four years, and restoring it won’t be easy. In fact, even under Biden, most Germans want their country to remain neutral between the U.S. and China.

Populist Pariahs. Like a strong matriarch, Merkel aimed to keep the whole family in the tent. As Europe’s most influential leader, she had the means to do it. But without her, experts expect the E.U. to more aggressively take on increasingly illiberal Eastern European regimes, such as in Hungary and Poland. Biden has shown little appetite to accommodate the region’s populist leaders as well. But their actions could inadvertently push Eastern Europe closer to Russia or China, which would be a decidedly unpopular development for global democracy.

cultural shifts

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Poland Over Germany. For decades, Polish migrants moved to Germany for a better life, drawn by the dream of making it big in Europe’s largest economy. Now the tables are turning. In parts of eastern Germany that feel neglected by Berlin, schools are now teaching Polish as a second language. That’s as German parents prepare their children to move to Poland — increasingly one of Europe’s most dependable economic engines — to seek their fortunes. Read more on OZY.

Germany’s Megan Rapinoes. “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them.” That’s the slogan adopted by Germany’s women’s soccer team. They have dealt with disrespect and people not knowing them despite the nation’s soccer fervor. But now they are out to prove the world they cannot be ignored. Take Sandra Schwedler, the only female supervisory board head in professional soccer in Germany. She’s combining activism with her love for the sport to make her voice heard. And she’s not alone. Germany’s Megan Rapinoes are on a mission to conquer.

Cultural New Deal. Right after the pandemic hit the world, the German federal government last March declared it would allocate $54 billion to support freelancers, small businesses and culture sector workers — an attempt to cope with the economic downturn. And in February this year, the German Ministry of Culture announced it will hand out $1.2 billion in aid to the country’s cultural sector. That’s part two of the country’s New Start Culture program, which started in July 2020 with another $1.2 billion bailout. That’s not all. Germany has also found a way to revive opera, in a socially distanced manner. The world can only hope for better art and entertainment from the European nation.

Sexual Healing. For decades, Berlin’s hedonistic nightclubs attracted people from across the world. But after being shut for over a year now, the clubs are struggling to pay rent — at least, without government help. Will they survive? While some are resorting to selling wine at charity shows, others are going online with DJ nights. After years of virility, their efforts may just prove impotent.

Migrant Dilemma. Since Merkel opened the doors to them five years ago, more than a million refugees have made Germany their home. Some German states, like Baden-Württemberg, have created economic opportunity out of what was initially seen as a crisis. The state has trained migrants from Syria and elsewhere to take up jobs its aging population can’t support anymore, from Deutsche Bahn train operators to factory workers for auto giants. But it’s not all hunky-dory. A Syrian refugee recently withdrew his candidacy for the German Parliament after receiving multiple death threats. Which legacy — empathy or hatred — will a post-Merkel Germany embrace?

Matrix 2021: Is Neurotech ‘the One’ That’ll Save Us?

If limbs, kidneys and lungs are instruments constituting the body’s orchestra, the brain is its conductor, the difference between cacophony and symphony. But what if technology could quietly, almost surreptitiously, influence the way our brain functions, as The Matrix predicted two decades ago? Today’s Sunday Magazine dives into the latest cutting-edge research and inventions in neurotechnology, exploring how they could make us smarter and improve our quality of life … yet also pose troubling new ethical dilemmas. Ready to pop the red pill?

get smarter … and happier

Singing Steroids. It takes hundreds of hours of practice and sparks of creative genius to make great music. But will it in the future? Berklee College of Music is using headphones developed by Halo Neuroscience (acquired in February by Swedish firm Flow Neuroscience) that use brain stimulation to help students cut the painful part of art-making and get straight to the magic. The headphones help students, for example, master a guitar piece with fewer repetitions and practice more efficiently. Meanwhile, Elon Musk is plotting his next big move: streaming music straight into your brain. Read more on OZY.

Mind Games. What if your mind could act like a gaming joystick? That’s the emerging world of neurogaming. But mind-controlled games are about more than just making the experience hands-free. A group of scientists led by a professor at Finland’s Aalto University are developing video games designed specifically to treat depression. In the game, players solve challenges that are designed to come with a therapeutic benefit. They believe that neurogaming could soon reach a stage where it might help detect conditions such as Alzheimer’s, ADHD or schizophrenia. Instead of visiting a psychiatrist, you could just play a game.

wdwwed

Training the Next Top Gun. Like the naval aviators in the Tom Cruise classic, the U.S. Air Force feels the need … the need for speed. At least when it comes to teaching. With approximately 10 percent fewer pilots than it needs, the U.S. Air Force now aims to accelerate its aviator training program by plugging hi-tech electrodes into ears. The Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio is testing earbuds designed to use the latest advances in neuroscience to help pilots concentrate more than would otherwise be possible.

Gut Instinct. Scientists have long known that people thought to be wiser are less likely to feel lonely. But new research shows there’s a biological component to just how wise or lonely we are: the diversity of microbes in our gut. It’s a new wrinkle to the surging gut health trend. Turns out that a greater variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes in our gut goes hand in hand with the ability to make smart decisions associated with wisdom and to end up less lonely.

Ignore Small Setbacks. It’s something we’ve all been taught growing up. Now researchers at the University of Miami have proven that holding onto a petty, negative event can influence your long-term mental wellbeing. So try to forget — even if you can’t forgive. Without the advantages of neurotech research, our elders had it right.

making our lives better

Speech Within Reach … for Everyone. Throughout history, those who couldn’t speak were disadvantaged, even stigmatized. Now scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have developed technology that for the first time allows them to translate brain signals into entire sentences; before they could translate individual words but couldn’t string them together. Electrodes record brain activity, and combined with the movement of the tongue, lips, jaw and larynx, the device offers up data that a deep-learning algorithm can translate into sentences.

Safer Brain Surgeries. Nearly 24,000 adults in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord this year. Many of them require surgeries. New techniques known as nerve fiber-guided tractography and TumorGlow are helping surgeons target brain tumors more accurately than has been possible. The first helps avoid the brain’s language and motor areas with colorful 3D mapping, while TumorGlow spotlights tumor cells by infusing them with a fluorescent dye.

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A Cure for Insomnia? If you are an insomniac, you know the struggle. You might have tried meditation apps and hypnosis and gulped down melatonin or other sleep aids. Nothing seems to work. As pandemic-induced sleeplessness has soared, a growing number of companies are developing devices using electrostimulation to cure insomnia, offering an approach that allows users to avoid or minimize medication. The scientific evidence backing this approach is thin so far. But the growing demand for these devices is a reminder of the nightmare that is sleeplessness. Read more on OZY.

Reversing Alzheimer’s? A growing body of research over the past decade suggests that electromagnetic waves can help reverse memory loss and other effects of conditions like Alzheimer’s. A headset bombards the brain with electromagnetic pulses that activate nerve cells, bringing cognitive decline to a halt in some patients in a small clinical trial while improving cognition in others. If the approach succeeds with larger patient samples, it could offer the most pathbreaking step yet toward conquering Alzheimer’s — a disease afflicting 6 million Americans, with the number expected to double by 2050.

Zombie Genes. They live after we die. New research shows some genes in the brain actually become more active in the hours after our death. That has implications for researchers exploring whether brain cells from dead bodies can be used to devise treatments for autism, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and other diseases.

Mini Brains. Scientists have now started developing test tube brains to use in experiments on new drugs and their efficacy against diseases. These “mini-brains” are pinhead-sized collections of brain cells grown from a sample of human hair or skin.

ethical dilemmas

Privacy Lessons From Chile. New brain tech accumulates all of your personal data. But what about your privacy? Last year, Chile’s Parliament adopted a “neuro-rights” bill to ensure data of citizens collected through neurotech gets the same status as donated organs — misusing it or trafficking in it is punishable by law. It’s the first such legislation in the world, at the front of a movement spearheaded by Spanish neuroscientist Dr. Rafael Yuste at Columbia University. But given the breakneck pace at which neurotech is advancing, Chile might have offered us a window into the future.

Is It You … or the Machine? When a device plugged into your brain is helping you deal with depression, are you responsible for your behavior toward others, or is the machine in charge? Those questions of agency and identity have already begun to emerge in research with patients using neurotech advances for mental health treatment. It also raises thorny questions for criminal law: Should you or the machine be held responsible for your actions?

Augmentation Arms Race. With the U.S. Air Force adopting neurotechnology to make smarter pilots, it’s likely only a matter of time before the field becomes the latest theater for an arms race. China’s People’s Liberation Army is already investing in brain science research to optimize soldier performance on the battlefield, as are Russia and Australia.

Are You Being Brainwashed? In the crudest way possible. When devices read our brain signals, the flow of information can in theory occur both ways, such as a video game that responds to your mood and thoughts by changing, say, the weather, the music or the types of challenges. So while your mind is playing a video game, are your brain cells also being manipulated in some way? We don’t know yet. The worry is that it’ll be too late by the time we do know — and a generation will already have had their brains scrambled by Grand Theft Auto VII.

faces of neurotech

Future of Sports Coaching? A magician with the soccer ball, Lionel Messi leaves defenders flat-footed as he dribbles around them before shooting surreal goals. And he has done all of that predominantly with his left foot. Now imagine if he had the same skills and control with his weaker right foot. That’s the biology-defying future for sports that Israeli neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin is conjuring. He has developed an artificial intelligence platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations. His technology has already worked in a trial with a Russian soccer team. Next up? Basketball. Read more on OZY.

Hip-Hopping Fish. After two decades as Australia’s pioneering female DJ and music producer, Rebecca Poulsen made the unlikely leap to neuroscience. And she’s shown she’s no fish out of water. In fact, her path-breaking new research shows that zebrafish brains light up when they hear music, seemingly even recognizing different beats and notes in MC Hammer’s classic song ‘U Can’t Touch This.’  

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Battle Tumors, Battle Terror. Oshiorenoya Agabi is taking on both killer threats — and might be on his way to victory. The Nigerian neurotech entrepreneur who speaks five languages has developed a modem-sized device that can sniff out explosives in public spaces and diseases, including malignant tumors in humans. The theoretical physicist believes his discovery could enhance airport security. And global aviation giants like Airbus have caught the scent of Agabi’s research and are stepping up to partner with him.

Cooking Success. For generations, we’ve been taught that the brain has 100 billion cells or neurons. Then Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel decided to test that, mashing together four donated brains, taking a sample, measuring the neurons and then scaling up that number. The result? We now know the brain has 14 billion fewer neurons than previously thought — though still more proportionately than other animals. And fittingly for someone whose discovery emerged from a neuron soup, Herculano-Houzel is convinced the large size of our brains is the result of our ancestors learning to cook, a process that releases metabolic energy from food.

startups to track

BrainQ. When Israeli geophysicist Yaron Segal’s son was born with familial dysautonomia, a rare disorder of the autonomic nervous system, he decided it was time for a career change. Partnering with two friends, Segal’s startup, BrainQ, has developed a device that promises to revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders by identifying neural damage early and then getting an algorithm to devise a personalized treatment for traumatic brain injuries or strokes. It has also developed an electromagnetic, wave-based therapy for stroke patients that in a recent small study helped reduce disability.

Startups

USB for Your Brain. Doctors and researchers trying to decode the mysteries of the mind often try to tap into the activity of neurons and the flow of blood in the brain. But until now, that required invasive procedures and in some cases, brain surgery. Los Angeles-based startup Kernel has devised two technologies that serve as non-invasive brain recorders — inventions that attracted $53 million in funding last year. If the technology truly works, it could fundamentally transform brain research.

Sleep on It. Or with it. French startup Dreem started off as a dorm-room idea but is now promising one of the most talked-about innovations in sleep science. You wear their device, it tracks your sleep and emits subtle sounds at precise moments to help you sleep better. With more than $60 million in funding, investors are betting on this dream staying sweet.

Training ‘Mind Muscles’ for Sports Stardom

  • Neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin has developed an artificial intelligence platform so athletes can train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations.
  • The method of training by using your brain to control an on-screen avatar has demonstrated improvement in Russian soccer players, and it could be coming to basketball next.

A magician with the soccer ball, Lionel Messi leaves defenders flat-footed as he dribbles around them before scoring surreal goals. And he has done all of that predominantly with his left foot. Now imagine if he had the same skills and control with his weaker right foot too.

That’s the biology-defying future for sports that Israel-based neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin, 35, is conjuring. He has developed an artificial intelligence platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations. 

In fact, says Sonkin, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the left-right question is how “our first proof of concept started.” 

His aim is to “track changes in the brain activities” and to teach the brain to exercise in real time. 

He remembers the time coaches of FC Zenit, the champions of the Russian Premier League, reached out to him with a specific problem: One of their young players had one strong foot and one weak one. And because one foot was weak, they’d focus only on the strong one. “So it’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” he says.

So he came up with a solution to boost the performances of these athletes. How? It’s like playing the video game FIFA, just with your mind instead of your controller. 

Konstantin

Konstantin Sonkin

Sonkin asks the player to put on a brain sensory cap, stare at a screen and try to control their character using their imagination. If, for instance, you’re a soccer striker, this platform would help you work on penalty kicks. You pick the position and then you’re prompted by the screen to imagine the specific action in detail. That’s because, says Sonkin, it is important to visualize a sports-specific action. He says his aim is to “track changes in the brain activities” and to teach the brain to exercise in real time. 

While he accepts that we are far from fully understanding how the brain works, he believes scientists can now examine the basic functions of the brain and its structures to benefit the physical activity of athletes. And that’s what he’s been trying to do.

This product, which he calls a brain gym, is deeply personal for the salt-and-pepper-haired neuroscientist and entrepreneur. In fact, he wants it to be his gift to society, and especially Israel, for welcoming him, his wife and their two children with open arms. That’s because the wide-eyed man with a gentle grin that refuses to leave his face had decided to “make an aliyah” — the Hebrew word for “elevation” or “going up” — by moving his family to Israel four years ago on the basis of their Jewish origin.

And perhaps his dedication to giving back to the community is what keeps people around him. 

Ashley Rose, a marketing manager at Sonkin’s startup, i-BrainTech, concurs. The 26-year-old from Canada came to Israel two years ago to pursue her MBA at Tel Aviv University. Initially, she wanted to return to Canada, but then she met Sonkin. “It’s extremely inspiring to work with him,” Rose says. “It’s interesting because I think, traditionally, people think of scientists having a certain personality and being a certain way in their thought process and thinking. But because he’s a scientist and an entrepreneur, there are like two different sides of him. He thinks really rationally and, you know, he applies statistics to everything, and he’s so methodical. But on the other hand, he’s a risk-taker, and he sees the bigger vision.”

Technology

And this vision has been quite helpful for the FC Zenit Academy, where Sonkin piloted his product. The team was divided into two groups: One had regular training, and the other had regular training along with neuroscience training twice a week. After two months, the second set of players displayed a 35 percent increase in kicking accuracy and a 33 percent increase in ball speed.

That shouldn’t be surprising, says Sonkin, even as the athletes’ bone structure and muscle density remain the same. “What we need to train is the brain.”

Now he plans to take his product to athletes in Germany, Israel and the United States, and turn his focus beyond soccer and toward basketball. Imagine if Steph Curry could shoot with his left hand as well as his right.

And there are implications well beyond sports. Sonkin has also designed brain tech for children with cerebral palsy so that they can interact with a 3D-printed mobile robot controlled by their brain and body signals.

Sonkin’s work does raise some thorny moral questions. For instance, in her article “An Ethics Toolbox for Neurotechnology” in the neuroscience journal Neuron, Martha J. Farah writes, “When we improve our psychological function by brain intervention, it is much like improving our car’s performance by making adjustments under the hood. … But in so doing, we are treating a person — our self in the case of voluntary brain enhancement — as an object.” Privacy and security questions abound.

Sonkin concurs. “Such development cannot be left in the hands of anyone who can use it as a weapon.”

But neurotech, what Sonkin calls poetry in mathematical form, is the next big thing. And we should all be prepared — albeit ethically.

Figuring Out China’s Next Move

There was never going to be a thaw when top American and Chinese diplomats met in Anchorage earlier this month for the first time since President Joe Biden took office. But the winds blew even colder than expected, and it’s unclear how Biden will approach ties with Beijing. What’s indisputable? No matter what happens between Washington and Beijing, China’s importance is only going to grow — for America, the world and for you. Today’s Daily Dose takes you into the fascinating, fast-changing world of Chinese politics, business, culture and foreign relations. It’s a world you could once afford to ignore. Not anymore.

beyond xi

Sun Chunlan. When Communist China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, famously declared that “women hold up half the sky,” he might not have imagined that 66 years later the country’s top boardroom — the Chinese Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo — would feature just one woman: 70-year-old Vice Premier Sun. But this former clock factory worker got her timing just right. Sun is President Xi Jinping’s coronavirus czar, and her success in rapidly bringing the crisis under control has turned her into a household name, raising her political stature as China leads the world out of the pandemic-spawned recession — even though the virus originated there and an early attempted cover-up hampered progress. Now she’s on a mission to speed up free COVID-19 vaccinations so China can win that race too.

Liu He. He’s the man Xi trusts to keep China’s economy steady. From trade talks with the U.S. to improving GDP numbers, the 69-year-old Harvard-educated economist is Xi’s point person, a quiet puppeteer charting the future path of the world’s second-largest economy. Now “Uncle He” is leading a war against China’s credit boom — and fintech giants like billionaire Jack Ma’s Ant Group are in his crosshairs. The scope of his campaign will tell us just how much Xi wants to control the Chinese private sector that has unleashed the country’s economic potential over the past 40 years.

Han Zheng. What Liu is to China’s economy, Han is to Xi’s plans to firmly bring Hong Kong to heel. Han was just 48 when he became mayor of Shanghai in 2003 — the youngest person in half a century to hold one of China’s most coveted political posts. Now in charge of Hong Kong and Macao for the CCP, he has the difficult task of convincing Hongkongers that Beijing wants to support the city’s development, while cracking down on all signs of democratic dissent. He’s the face of China’s latest controversial step to only allow only “patriots” to run for elections in Hong Kong. If China breaks with the One Country, Two Systems model it promised Hong Kong when it regained control of the island in 1997, you’ll know it was Han who rocked the cradle.

Cai Xia. If Sun, Liu and Han represent the satellites in Xi’s narrow orbit of trust, Cai is the opposite. A teacher at the Central Party School, Cai was a CPC insider, the daughter of revolutionaries who sacrificed much to set up Communist China. But she was expelled from the party last year after she called Xi a “mafia boss.” Now in exile abroad, Cai has emerged as one of the Chinese president’s most potent critics. Her background and decades of loyalty to the party make it hard for Beijing to paint her as a Western stooge. As for Cai, she believes Xi has abused the ideals of Communist China her parents fought for. Pushing back is her ode to them.

tech-tonic shift

In the Driver’s Seat. For years, China depended on reverse-engineering foreign automobile brands for transportation upgrades. No longer just a copycat, Beijing is buying up innovative Western auto startups and hiring global talent to develop some of the sector’s cutting-edge technology, from 3D-printed vehicles to flying cars. This strategic shift is a central part of the Chinese government’s pivot to hi-tech innovation over low-cost exports and is making Beijing a global automotive giant. Next up: Zeekr, a new brand of premium electric vehicles launched by Chinese company Geely Automobile Holdings, plans to deliver its first vehicles in the third quarter of 2021. Elon Musk, watch your rearview mirror. Read more on OZY.

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The Next TikTok. TikTok and Amazon rolled into one, Kuaishou allows the sophisticated and fun social media experience of the former while enabling on-the-spot e-commerce to rival the latter’s abilities. And you can tip creatives on the platform. Amid the pandemic in August, it was registering 500 million monthly e-commerce orders. Instagram Reels, Facebook’s TikTok rival, is trying to mimic its model. Kuaishou’s stock soared 194 percent after it went public last month, hitting a market capitalization of $160 billion. But it’ll need to survive Uncle He’s crackdown on Chinese Big Tech if it’s to have more than 15 seconds of fame.

5G Glee. When then U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned last year that “our economic future is at stake,” he wasn’t exaggerating about China’s 5G dominance. Giants Huawei and ZTE account for 40 percent of the global telecom network market, a tribute to China’s rapidly expanding investments in 5G, which promise faster network speeds and innovations from health care to transportation. And while Western bans and U.S. restrictions on the sale of smartphone chips to Huawei have meant the company saw its revenues drop outside China last year, look no further than Yinchuan, a windswept city on the outskirts of the Ordos Desert, for the future of 5G. With automated garbage collection, smart traffic management and much more, it offers a template for what our cities could look like in a few years. Read more on OZY.

Small Is Big. From cloning to cancer research, China is using nanoscience to drive some of the world’s biggest breakthroughs. In 2018, Chinese researchers were responsible for 40 percent of all nanoscience research papers — the U.S. was second with 15 percent. Or to put it differently, there’s nothing nano about China’s ambitions in nanoscience. Read more on OZY.

new cultural revolution

Slow Living. If Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was about social upheaval, life in China over the past three decades has been defined by rapid urbanization, soaring dreams and the constant search for wealth. Now a new generation is tiring of that approach, especially after a pandemic that has exposed its pitfalls, Instead, more than 100 cities and counties are embracing “slow living,” setting population limits, throttling down traffic and restricting fast food. Read more on OZY.

Retail In Hong Kong Ahead of GDP Figures

The Luxury-Gaming Marriage. From Gucci to Burberry, the world’s top luxury brands are embracing China as their test market. How a fashion line does there will determine what you find in your stores. And the reasons for the shift go beyond China’s market size. Apps like WeChat — and now Kuaishou — that marry social media with e-commerce make targeted advertisements easier in China than in the West. Chinese millennials are the ones with large disposable incomes, unlike the West and Japan, where only older people can afford to spend on high-end fashion. That makes China a perfect litmus test for the future. It’s also why luxury brands in China are turning to an unlikely set of brand ambassadors: young gamers. Read more on OZY.

Cultural Imperialism. From the hanbok to kimchi, China faces growing accusations of trying to appropriate symbols of Korean culture. Recently, Chinese search engine Baidu irked South Koreans by introducing Yun Dong-ju, a Korean poet and independence activist during the Japanese colonial era, as “Chinese.” Is it a coincidence that this appropriation comes at a time when K-pop and Korean dramas are ruling global airwaves, pushing China’s soft power influence into the background? Koreans don’t think so. In 2020, a Pew survey found that 75 percent of the South Korean public held unfavorable views of China.

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Now Showing in Africa. But appropriating what belongs to others is hardly China’s only soft power strategy. Since 2015, Beijing has funded a massive project to supply digital television services to rural Africa, so don’t be surprised if you find Kenyans watching kung fu films. China is also investing in African films and TV shows to expand its cultural footprint on a continent where it is already king. And it seems to be working. In the East African nation of Malawi, Chinese movies are ubiquitous in movie halls, home television sets and on the internet. Chinese films are even being dubbed into the local Chichewa language.

everybody’s friend, nobody’s friend

‘Marriage Made in Heaven.’ That’s how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described his country’s relationship with China. As the U.S. pressures Saudi Arabia on its human rights record, the Gulf power too is drifting toward China — they signed a mammoth $28 billion investment deal in 2019. And ignoring U.S. sanctions, China is buying record volumes of oil from Iran, keeping that country’s broken economy afloat. So why are countries that can’t agree on anything else — Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran — all in love with China? Unlike Washington, Beijing hasn’t yet embroiled itself in the region’s rivalries. Unlike Europe and Russia, it doesn’t have an imperial history in the Middle East. And unlike all the others, China has cash to splash.

Jittery Neighbors. It’s a very different story in China’s own neighborhood. In 2013 when Xi first unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative — a web of highways, railroads and ports connecting different parts of Asia with each other and with Europe and Africa — he had everyone’s attention. But amid growing concerns over rising debts from Chinese investments under the BRI, an increasing number of Asian nations are reevaluating their partnerships under the project. China’s growing military assertiveness in the Himalayas and South China Sea aren’t helping in a part of the world where — unlike the Middle East — China does have a long history of war and invasions. Over the weekend, the Philippines said it was sending fighter aircraft over some 200 Chinese ships that Manila claims are encroaching on its territory in the South China Sea. Read more on OZY.

Vaccine Diplomacy. In a world where COVID-19 vaccines will likely determine who can travel and which economies can safely open up, China realized early that jabs will hold greater soft power than Hollywood for the foreseeable future. They’re also a smart way to make money. So it raced to develop vaccines that it has since exported to countries across Africa, the Middle East, South America and parts of Asia. It cut corners, introducing vaccines for use before final clinical trials were done. Yet while that has led to some distrust, the vaccine nationalism infecting U.S. and European policy means poorer nations often have nowhere else to turn but Beijing. Read more on OZY.

Africa’s Alternative. Yet China’s not getting a free run everywhere. In Africa, where China is the biggest investor, it’s now facing a challenge from an old rival: Japan. Since 2017, three major Japanese venture capital firms have invested tens of millions of dollars in African startups. Japanese money is allowing a continent swamped with Chinese cash to look for alternatives. For the Japanese firms, pumping cash into politically volatile economies is a chance to break with their image as risk-averse, safe investors. The real winners? African startups. Read more on OZY.

When Love and Hate Collide. On the surface, it looks like a bitter breakup. The European Union and China imposed tit-for-tat sanctions on each other’s officials last week over Brussels’ concerns about human rights in Xinjiang. But remember, the human rights excesses in that Chinese province were known just as well when the EU and Beijing struck a landmark investment deal to ring in the new year three months ago. And away from the public rancor, China is a major financier of key infrastructure projects in Scandinavia and the Baltics. So, while things look rough right now, don’t bet against a handshake some months from now. Just like professional poker players do after a particularly well-orchestrated bluff. Read more on OZY.