Aaron D. Spears has a distinctive way of crafting analogies. Using descriptive metaphors, he has an ability to describe his life experiences in poetic verse. And with his extensive résumé of film and television roles, Spears’ acting career is grounded on a foundation of spoken-word.
He’s known as the suave Justin Barber on CBS’ “The Bold and The Beautiful,” which nominated him for the 2011 and 2012 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Daytime Drama.
Now, Spears has landed a role on BET’s new drama series “Being Mary Jane” starring Gabrielle Union. In the network’s first hour-long drama series, viewers follow a Black woman who’s a career-driven talk show host juggling family, social life and work life. Spears plays co-anchor, Mark Bradley.
“Cast and crew [were] very open, very down to earth. Gabrielle Union was a pleasant surprise,” Spears said. “She was not bourgeois. She was a regular girl, an average person at work. She was very warm and welcoming and mending herself to multiple options, not just stuck in one way doing or creating a character.”
Produced by husband and wife duo, Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (“The Game,” “Jumping the Broom”), Spears described the couple’s working style as a joint effort of support.
“The director was cool,” he said. “Mara was very helpful in explaining any questions you may have. I like Salim in that he was open to suggestions, more of a collaborative effort as appose to directional effort.”
Spears admitted that while on set, he has learned a lot about himself as an actor. Balancing one television series takes hard work, but adding a second, Spears said will be a true endurance challenge.
“Some things that you ask for you’re not ready until you get that experience,” Spears said. “And that experience will either let it be known that yeah I am ready, or you will find out very quickly that you’re not.
“I compare this experience like double Dutch rope,” he added. “You’re getting your rhythm, you’re bouncing back and forth. You go to jump in the rope, but [if] you don’t catch that rhythm, that rope is going to sting your leg. That’s kind of how it is when you’re doing a drama because it’s long hours. A lot of shooting. A lot of waiting around. A lot of different takes. One, you have to maintain a level of testament, and two, making sure your interest don’t drop. When you’re off camera take that time to rest because at three AM you maybe doing a close up.”
Seen in films, “Babel,” “The Mannsfield 12” and “Blue Hill Avenue,” he has guest starred on television shows “NCIS,” “Castle,” “Boston Legal,” “Lincoln Heights,” “Bones” and “Criminal Minds.”
Aside from his full-time work in acting, Spears is passionate about his family. He credits his wife for providing support while he works.
“You got to have a strong person by your side. In terms of my wife and what she does, I always tell her like, ‘They couldn’t pay me to do your job. No. I’m good.’ You got to have a foundation. It’s a lot easier for me to go out and do my job because I have a foundation at the house.”
And the foundation that launched his acting career, stemmed from his experiences as a spoken-word poet.
“Spoken word was something very interesting,” Spears said. “Spoken word just kept following me.”
When he wrote a poem and got approval from family and friends, Spears said he realized he had a flair for poetry. After he moved from New York to California, he embarked on a journey — which yielded more opportunities for the actor.
“There was a poetry scene and that was my outlet of continuing to be in the spotlight. It kept me driven,” he said. “It kept me open. I kept writing and I kept performing at various clubs around the city. It kind of lent itself to me and I never was closed to it. Different energy [than acting], but still a creative vice to express. And ‘til this day, I still do spoken word.”
In 1997, Spears established his own company, HENNA Inc., which has introduced a new perspective of spoken-word poetry and a renaissance of film making in Hollywood.
Spears, a Washington, D.C., native, has additional talents as a former football player, artist and dabbles in singing, as well. Yet, he gave praise to Philadelphia for providing him his first experiences in the entertainment industry.
“I have a lot of ties to Philly,” Spears said. “Philly was one of the first places when I was jumping off the map trying to do my thing. I did a lot of modeling and auditioning in Philly. Philly always has that closeness to my heart. If it wasn’t for Philly, I don’t even know if I would have lasted in New York.”
As a previous Penn Relays participant, attendant of the annual Greek Picnic in Philadelphia and a fan of The Roots and Jill Scott, Spears jokingly said he wants to come back for a “fish cheese steak” sandwich. Just skip the beef because he’s no longer eating red meat.
Graduation is a milestone. And with one week away from embarking on a journey of new experiences, life changes and countless opportunities, several students in the Class of 2012 have more to celebrate.
The Philadelphia Tribune and Wells Fargo Student Achievers Reception recognized 66 high school seniors — who have made academic accomplishments while under challenging circumstances — on June 6 at the Union League of Philadelphia.
The Tribune’s president and CEO, Robert W. Bogle, greeted the students and their families and gave a congratulatory message.
“Today we honor students who have displayed an unwavered commitment to academic excellence,” he said. “Despite a number of challenges and obstacles, our student honorees, have managed in a very meaningful way to achieve something that will be important for many of your tomorrows. And that is the first step towards this journey called success.”
Bogle also recognized Constance E. Clayton for attending the event. She is the first woman and first African-American superintendent of schools in Philadelphia.
Aldustus (A.J.) Jordan, vice president of community affairs manager of Wells Fargo was the master of ceremonies, and Rev. Tamieka N. Moore of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church gave the invocation.
Thomas Knudsen, acting superintendent and chief recovery officer of the School District of Philadelphia and Pedro A. Ramos, Esq., chairman of the School Reform Commission gave remarks.
“Each and every one of you graduates has marshaled his or her resources and accomplished something real and meaningful that will be with you for all the days of your lives,” he said. “And you have done so in the face of personal challenges that would have held others back. That makes you true heroes.”
“Commit to being an aggressively life long learner,” Ramos said. “Everyday for the rest of your life seek out new knowledge and better understanding of different cultures and different ideas.”
The keynote speaker, Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church offered words of encouragement to the students. While sharing the story of his life growing up, Johnson used an analogy of chickens and eagles. He challenged the students not to act as their peers and be timid, but be rare individuals who aren’t afraid to achieve success.
“Maybe you have gone through the struggles and challenges in your own life just so you can begin to fly,” Johnson said. “It’s now time for you to launch. And as you get ready to launch, I want you to know, don’t forget this moment when you heard someone tell you to not become a chicken, but to dare to become an eagle.”
Mayor Michael Nutter and Wells Fargo Regional President Vincent Liuzzi, were also in attendance. Liuzzi presented a $25,000 check to the City of Philadelphia Office of Education’s organization PhillyGoes2College, which helps Philadelphians of all ages earn a college degree.
Among the awardees at the reception was high school senior, Christopher Miller of Carver Engineering and Sciences High School. Miller said he was honored to be recognized.
“I’m proud of myself. I had no idea what is was at first, and then my mom told me and a couple kids from school told me,” Miller said. “It means a lot.”
This fall, Miller will attend Morehouse College. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history, he plans to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Within his four years of school, Miller has lost both his maternal and paternal grandfathers to cancer. Despite this emotional burden, Leah Tate, Miller’s mother said that she is proud of his accomplishments and knew that he had the ability to push through.
“He was never the kid to stand outside,” Tate said. “He always went to school and home. Everybody knew that Chris is the scholar. I’m extremely proud. Christopher is extraordinary in many ways. He’s going to Morehouse College and he did everything on his own.”
She also encourages other parents with children entering high school in the fall.
“Besides starting to make sure that they stay active, but give a little,” Tate said. “Let them go out and experience things. Don’t be scared. I didn’t achieve it for myself, but I wasn’t scared for my son.”
Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister, former senior vice president and chief of staff of The Johns Hopkins University, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief of staff and executive vice president and chief operating officer of Temple University, has been appointed president of Girard College.
Armbrister said his work in educational institutional settings and with the city of Philadelphia has given him the ability to enhance his skills.
“I’m excited, but at the same time, I’m humbled by the selection, excited about the opportunity and the prospects. [I’m] really looking forward to working with the students, administration, faculty, staff members along with the Board of City Trusts to try to maintain what is a gem institution in the city,” Armbrister said.
Additionally, Armbrister discussed his goals for the school.
“My goals are to listen and try to help figure out the best for maintaining the school and hopefully begin to expand with appropriate resources,” Armbrister said.
Bernard Smalley, senior counsel to the Tucker Law Group, has known Armbrister for 20 years. As the chairman of the Girard College Committee Board of City Trusts and chair of the search committee, Smalley said Armbrister has a passion for education and the experience to be successful as the school’s president.
“I’m excited about the opportunity of having Clay as the next president of Girard College. Not only for the city, but especially for the students and the administration of the school, and for what it means to the region,” Smalley said. “He’s always been committed to quality education. We face challenges at Girard College, as does any other major educational system, the School District, the Catholic schools. We’re all facing difficult times. This is the opportunity for someone who is extremely skilled in management [and] has a foundation in education to bring his skills to help the kids at Girard to get a 21st century education.”
Creatively executing raps that evoke social, political and economic change while balancing life an as educator seems effortless for Philadelphia rapper Aquil Heru. As he prepares for his debut on an international stage, Aquil (his stage name) has placed a mark with hip-hop enthusiasts and legendary producers.
Aquil will perform at Toronto’s North by Northeast Festivals and Conference (NXNE) on June 14. The seven-day festival will host 650 bands and screen 40 films from June 11 to June 17. Aquil accredits this new travel experience to Internet technologies and non-traditional ways of showcasing his music.
“Social media has helped me network and meet people that I never would have known. Social media has allowed me to reach a few people that actually listen and give my music a chance. Without Sonicbids.com I wouldn't have performed at the Brooklyn Hip-hop Festival or NXNE,” Aquil said.
He is no novice to music festivals. In the summer of 2010, Aquil performed at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival.
“I got to see how festivals work; the good and the bad of performing at those type of events. I got to meet a lot of people that I never thought I would or people that I consider legendary like De La Soul, Pete Rock and Buckshot.”
To date, his career has yield four albums: Blues People, Darkroom (of my mind), On the Ascendant and The Bright Lady Sessions.
From the collaborative project of The Bright Lady Sessions, Aquil worked with South Jersey rapper, Yahzilla, and hip hop producers 9th Wonder and the Soul Council. Recorded live at 9th Wonder’s North Carolina studio, Aquil explained that completing the nine-track EP was a memorable experience.
“It was great. They invited me and Yahzilla down to record with them in their studio called Bright Lady Studios for the entire weekend. We went down there from Friday to Sunday and basically recorded all day and all night and they let us record for free. They didn’t charge us anything. They gave us beats for free. Everybody was feel friendly.”
Aquil did admit that the experience taught him to be creative more quickly.
“I basically got an introduction to doing things on the spot, coming up with ideas and songs and basically completing them right on the spot,” he said.
Currently, he is working on his fifth album Land of Synth — which will feature soulful sounds of synthesized instruments. The project will be released in late summer.
Along with his music career, Aquil balances life as a first- and second-grade teacher at K.W. Reed Christian Academy for Boys. Teaching reading, science, math, English, social studies and language arts, Aquil said being an educator has given him new skills.
“I’m basically the mentor, big brother, teacher and it’s been a great experience. I learned a lot about weaknesses and strengths and also how to reach people. I’ve learned a lot from them as far as just how to communicate better and get ideas across.”
And with a teacher who appreciates composition of music, respects timeless artists and takes notes from different music genres, Aquil’s students are exposed to Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal in the classroom.
His career as a musical artist and teacher remain separate, but Aquil makes efforts in both areas to combat negative stereotypes of rappers.
“I don’t try to fit into the stereotype of what people think being a Black man is. I don’t try to fit in the stereotype of being a gangster, or a thug or a former drug dealer. I don’t front like I came up from a certain type of environment even though I’m from North Philly.
“I do music as true to myself as I can. I write from my experiences or even from my imagination, but it’s not from a point of view where I’m talking about a heist or crime spree. I’m talking about things that I imagine. I try to write what I think and feel, but at the same time, what I imagine how things could be.”
Join Aquil at his next Philadelphia performance at Silk City, 435 Spring Garden Street, June 20 with Afloe, WrittenHouse, Sela, Yahzilla, Electric Lady, Arckatron and Aeon.
Lena Greenberg managed to knock out 272 spelling bee contenders in a nationwide competition. Her courage, commitment and smarts led her to be one of nine finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 14-year-old veteran finalist of Philadelphia placed fourth in the competition shown live on ESPN on May 31.
According to the Associated Press, the home-schooled student was a crowd favorite as she proudly ran back to her chair after each correct word. Yet, she buried her face in her hands and shouted, “Oh! Oh!” when she was eliminated.
First place winner Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego received $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and an online language course.
Stuti Mishra of West Melbourne, Florida, took second.
For the second consecutive year, Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York, finished in third.
“I got eliminated both times by German words,” Mahankali said. “I know what I have to study.”
Tied for fourth, along with Greenberg, was the highest-placing international speller, Gifton Wright of Spanish Town, Jamaica.
Also tied for fourth was Nicolas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio. He has been in the bee every year since 2008, making the finals for the first time. Despite his performance, Rushlow’s run is over.
“I’m a has-been now,” Rushlow said.
Of the nine finalists, Greenberg was the last speller to make finals. She correctly spelled “cholecystitis” — which is an inflammation of the gallbladder.
Greenberg managed to outspell her sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade colleagues at the Regional Spelling Bee hosted by the Tribune on March 10. The veteran speller also won the regional competition in 2011, and traveled to Washington, D.C., for the national contest.
Other than memorizing the spelling of words, Greenberg shares an interest in foreign languages, politics and current events. Everyday she visits the BBC, CNN and Spanish-language websites to read the latest news.
Greenberg has also served as the former executive editor of YALDAH, a national magazine for Jewish girls. She is the layout editor for her synagogue’s 16–20 page monthly newsletter and her writing has been published in children’s magazines Stone Soup, Cricket, New Moon Girls and Creative Kids.
Setting out time to volunteer, Greenberg works at Friendship Circle, an organization for Jewish kids with special needs.