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Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – Season Two
Panelist Biographies
Air date: 09/23/2014

Finding Your Roots – Season Two


TCA Panelists Biographies

Khandi Alexander, Actress

Khandi Alexander, with Ben Affleck and Benjamin Jealous, is featured in episode four: Roots of Freedom, which highlights three guests whose families have long been engaged in the battle for freedom and civil rights, but who had no idea that those principles were passed down through generations of ancestors. Khandi Alexander, who never knew who her grandfather was, learns that he may have been murdered in the Jim Crow South.  She discovers she has patriot ancestors who fought valiantly for freedom in the American Revolution.

Best known for her stellar performances in “Newsradio,” HBO’s “The Corner,” “ER” and “CSI: Miami,” for which she won an NAACP Image Award, New Yorker Khandi Alexander began her career as a chorus dancer on Broadway and then went on to choreograph several Whitney Houston World Tours (and choreographed music videos for David Bowie, Joe Cocker, to name a few).  Alexander worked closely with the famed Kenny Ortega for many years as well.

After iconic turns in the feature films CB4 and There’s Something About Mary, Alexander stars next in the indie film The Case Against Sam, where she plays a detective determined to seek justice for a rape of a high school student.

The New York Times and The New Yorker singled out her performance as LaDonna Batiste-Williams in HBO’s “Treme,” giving her the utmost critical acclaim.

Alexander’s theatre credits include Chicago, starring as Velma Kelly at the Shubert Theatre in LA, as well as leading roles in Bones, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie, The Horrible and Tragic Life of the Singing Nun and The Wedding Band.  Her extensive theatre appearances include productions both on and off-Broadway.

Most recently viewers reveled in her portrayal of Mama Pope in ABC’s “Scandal” opposite Kerry Washington and Joe Morton. Alexander will be seen next opposite Queen Latifah in HBO’s “Bessie” for director Dee Rees.


Nas, Musician

Nas, with Angela Bassett and Valerie Jarrett, is featured in episode six: We Come From People (w.t.), which features three guests whose roots run back into the heart of slavery, revealing there is no single narrative and challenging our preconceptions of an era that has profoundly shaped our nations sense of itself.  Nas discovers a web of his slave ancestors and their intimate relationship with their slave master.


“So much to write and say/Yo, I don’t know where to start/So I’ll begin with the basics and flow from the heart” – Nas, “Loco-Motive”


Hip-hop is a fickle, ephemeral beast; a genre filled with trend-hopping “artists,” corporate hucksters and walking gimmicks desperate to achieve their 15 minutes of shine. Look back at the hip-hop charts 20 years ago—hell, look back 10—and see how many names you’re still reading about today.

Ever since a 17-year-old Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones appeared on Main Source’s 1991 classic “Live at the Barbeque,” hip-hop would be irrevocably changed. Nas. Gifted poet. Confessor. Agitator. Metaphor master. Street’s disciple. Political firebrand. Tongue-twisting genius. With music in his blood courtesy of famed blues musician father Olu Dara, the self-taught trumpeter attracted crowds with his playing at age 4, wrote his first verse at age 7 and, with 1994’s Illmatic, created one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time before he could legally drink. Two decades on, Nas remains an incendiary, outspoken and brutally candid rapper on the recently released Life is Good, his tenth album and sixth to debut at the top of the Billboard 200.

Critics and fans immediately flocked to Life is Good, with everyone from Rolling Stone (“He cuts his rhymes with midlife realism and daring empathy”) and MTV (“The most emotionally raw record he’s made since his first”) to HipHopDX (“An obvious maturation from the veteran”) and Pitchfork (“Best New Music”) praising the album. Far from divorcing personal problems from a hyperbolic, caricatured alter ego, Life is Good finds Nas confronting the myriad issues he’s faced head-on since 2008′s Untitled (“Daughters, “Bye Baby”), mixed with a wayward wisdom that allows him to channel the past without attempting to ape it (“Loco-Motive,” “Nasty”).

“I used to listen to that Red Alert and Rap Attack/I fell in love with all that poetry/Mastered that” – Nas, “The Don”


Before the 13 Grammy nominations, seven platinum albums and Top 5 rankings on MTV’s 10 Greatest MCs of All Time and The Source’s Top 50 Lyricists of All Time, 17-year-old Nas would take daily trips to Manhattan hoping to secure a major label deal, only to be shot down by nearly every label. When 3rd Bass co-founder MC Serch brought his demo tape to the attention of Faith Newman, then-Director of A&R for Columbia Records, she made a deal with Serch that day, offering Nas a $17,000 advance and the lifeline to begin his career.

With hundreds of thousands of words alongside entire books written on the album, it seems almost trite today to discuss the universal impact and acclaim that Illmatic had on rap. Put simply: the album has long been considered a masterpiece not just in hip hop, but music as a whole, inspiring countless subsequent rappers and establishing Nas as the most vivid storyteller of urban life since Rakim and Chuck D.

1996’s It Was Written built upon Illmatic’s foundation, with “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled the World” (the latter with Lauryn Hill) becoming radio staples and vaulting Nas into mainstream success. For his two 1999 albums, I Am… and Nastradamus, the rapper balanced commercial aspirations with extended metaphors and rough street anthems, carving out multiple identities that better reflected the rapper’s expanded worldview.

“My success symbolizes loyalty/Great friends/Dedication/Hard work/Routine builds character/In a world full of snakes, rats and scavengers” – Nas, “You Wouldn’t Understand”


In 2001, the rapper released his fifth album Stillmatic at the height of his escalating battle with Jay-Z for “King of New York.” Tracks like “Ether” and “Got Ur Self A….” could be heard on radio stations and in cars across the country and would eventually sell more than 2 million copies, while songs like “Rewind,” which told the story of a payback hit in reverse a la Memento, solidified Nas as an atypical rapper unafraid to play with convention. God’s Son, with the booming anthem “Made You Look,” would follow one year later and go gold.

As Nas entered his 30s, his scope and breadth became even more ambitious. While most rappers struggle to say anything on one album, Nas released the 2004 double album Street’s Disciple, reuniting with his estranged father on the blues/hip-hop hybrid “Bridging the Gap.” The album also featured the Iron Butterfly-sampling “Thief’s Theme,” which remains one of Nas’ most anthemic songs.

In the past decade, Nas has only gotten more inflammatory and passionate, purposely titling albums to provoke weighty discussions on a global level. 2006’s Hip Hop is Dead sparked widespread debate on the veracity of the title, while Nas changed 2008’s Untitled from its original title Nigger, yet still incited intense polemics on race and politics in America.

“Reveal my life/You will forgive me/You will love me/Hate me/Judge me/Relate to me/Only a few will/This how it sounds when you too real/They think it’s just music still” – Nas, “No Introduction”

In recent years, though, Nas has transcended mere rapper status and engaged in greater levels of philanthropy. The rapper is an avid UNICEF supporter, helping to raise funds for East African region Horn of Africa and teaming up with the family of George Harrison for the organization’s Month of Giving. The rapper also donated all proceeds of Distant Relatives, his 2010 collaboration with longtime friend Damian Marley, to help end poverty in Africa.

Nas’s desire for greater interaction with his fans has also led him to new business ventures. He serves on the board of social photo sharing site The Fancy alongside Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and has invested in Mass Appeal and RapGenius.com. Most recently, Nas announced plans to open 12AMRun – a sneaker store in Las Vegas.

The artist’s most recent release was 2011’s Life Is Good, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200, marking the sixth #1 album that Nas has produced in his career. The collection also received four GRAMMY nominations bringing the rap icon’s GRAMMY recognition count to 13 overall.

Nas’ seminal debut album, Illmatic, was released as a special 20th Anniversary Edition, titled Illmatic XX in April 2014 by SONY Legacy. In conjunction with the release, Time Is Illmatic – a feature length documentary film that examines the album – will open The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Rapper J-Live once said satirically, “To be a great MC, you have to be a great liar.” It’s safer to not tell the truth; safer to sanitize your existence; safer to align yourself with the producer du jour; safer to rhyme about tropes over truths. Nas’ catalog speaks for itself. Over 10 albums, the rapper has never been one to play it safe. Whether it’s rhyming about politics, hip hop, race, religion, other artists or personal relationships, Nas has consistently brought unparalleled and unprecedented levels of honesty to hip hop, a trait often overlooked in the genre. On Life is Good’s “Reach Out,” Nas rhymes, “So call me a genius/If you didn’t/Now that I said it/I force you to think it.” For most artists, this would be arrogance bordering on hubris. For Nas, who’s remained vital and relevant for nearly 20 years, it’s just fact.


Anna Deavere Smith, Actress/Playwright

Anna Deavere Smith, with Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper, is featured in episode three: Our American Storytellers, which focuses on three iconic American storytellers who have spent their lives chronicling the lives of others all the while knowing almost nothing about their own family history. Anna Deavere Smith learns the epic story of her great-grandfather, Basil Biggs, a free black man and former conductor on the Underground Railroad.  Her ancestors intersect at the most pivotal moments of American history.

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright. Smith is said to have created a new form of theater. Prizes include the National Humanities Medal presented by President Obama, a MacArthur fellowship, two Tony nominations and two Obie awards. She has created over 15 one-person shows based on hundreds of interviews. Her plays include Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles, and Let Me Down Easy. In film and television, you have seen her in “Nurse Jackie,” “The West Wing,” and Rachel Getting Married. Books include Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines. Smith is director of Anna Deavere Smith Works at the Aspen Institute – a place for artistic excellence and social change, dedicated to artists whose work shines a light on complex social issues. She is university professor at New York University.


Courtney B. Vance, Actor

Courtney B. Vance, with Stephen King and Gloria Reuben, is featured in episode one: In Search of Our Fathers. As one of three guests who know almost nothing about their fathers’ histories, Courtney B. Vance wants to learn more about his true roots after the tragic suicide of his father, a foster child who never knew the identity of his biological parents. The mystery of his paternal ancestry is solved and he is introduced to a relative he never knew he had.

From studying history at Harvard to making history in Hollywood, Courtney B. Vance has carefully cultivated an exceptional career that showcases his passion, talent and intellect. His penchant for successfully finding the dignity and honor in each character he explores has made this award-winning actor a powerful presence from the theatrical boards to the silver screen.

Vance appears this season in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” as Dr. Charles Hendricks, Chief of Staff at Buell Green Hospital; and is currently filming the role of Myles Dyson in Terminator: Genesis.

Vance was honored as the winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play and received a Drama League Distinguished Performance Award nomination for his stellar performance as Hap Hairston in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy.  He was also seen as FBI Special Agent Section Chief Sam Campbell in Jeff Eastin’s drama for USA Network, “Graceland” and Manhattan defense attorney Benjamin Barnes in ABC’s hit show “Revenge.”

Vance walked into his first theater rehearsal as a student at Harvard University and found “home” for the first time.  There he began to hone his craft by appearing with the Boston Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare and Company. During his tenure at the Yale School of Drama, he appeared with Yale Repertory Theatre and at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.  He headed to New York and quickly established himself on Broadway by being honored with a Tony Award nomination, the Theater World Award and Clarence Derwent Award for his debut performance in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences.  He received his second Tony Award nomination when he starred in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stockard Channing. Vance received an Obie Award for his inspired work in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, starred in Vaclav Havel’s Temptation with David Strathairn and as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet at the Public Theater, and performed to rave reviews with his wife, Angela Bassett, in John Guare’s U.S. premiere of the stage adaptation of His Girl Friday and The Front Page at Minneapolis’ renowned Guthrie Theater.

Vance has easily transferred his talents from the stage to the silver screen.  After his film debut as Spc. Abraham ‘Doc’ Johnson in Hamburger Hill, he appeared in several noteworthy films such as The Preacher’s Wife, Space Cowboys, The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Hunt for Red October, Cookie’s Fortune, The Last Supper, Hurricane Season and Extraordinary Measures, to name a few.  Most recently he has been seen as Pastor Dale in Joyful Noise, Agent Jim Block in Final Destination 5 and Delvin in The Divide.

In addition to his prolific film career, Vance’s talents have extended to many notable TV series and movies including Stanford Wedeck on ABC/Disney’s “Flash Forward;” Showtime’s “Blind Faith” and “Twelve Angry Men,” with the late George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon; August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” for Hallmark; HBO’s Emmy-nominated “The Tuskegee Airmen;” TNT’s “The Closer;” NBC’s “ER” and long-running hit series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” in which he played A.D.A. Ron Carver. Vance was the recipient of an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Drama series for his long-time portrayal of this role.

Courtney and his wife Angela Bassett wrote the book, FRIENDS: A LOVE STORY.  The inspirational book is their personal love story, and chronicles their story about healthy relationships. He and Ms. Bassett are U.S. Ambassadors for UNICEF, and Vance, a native of Detroit, Michigan, is also an Ambassador for the BOYS AND GIRLS CLUBS OF AMERICAThey currently reside in Southern California with their twins, Bronwyn Golden and Slater Josiah.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Executive Producer/Writer/Presenter


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Literary scholar, filmmaker, journalist, cultural critic and institution builder, Professor Gates has created 13 documentary films and authored 16 books and scores of articles, including for such leading publications as The New Yorker, the New York Times and Time.  Currently, he serves as editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine, while overseeing the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field.  Professor Gates’s most recent film, the six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which he wrote, executive produced and hosted, earned the 2013 Peabody Award and NAACP Image Award.

Previously for PBS, Professor Gates produced and hosted Wonders of the African World (1999), America Beyond the Color Line (2004), African American Lives (2006), Oprah’s Roots (2007), African American Lives 2 (2008), Looking for Lincoln (2009), Faces of America (2010), Black in Latin America (2011), and Finding Your Roots (2012). Professor Gates is currently completing the next season of Finding Your Roots, airing on PBS in fall 2014.  The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader, a collection of his writings, was published in 2012.

The recipient of 53 honorary degrees and numerous prizes, Professor Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998, he became the first African-American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal.  He was named to Time’s 25 Most Influential Americans list in 1997, to Ebony’s Power 150 list in 2009, and to Ebony’s Power 100 list in 2010 and 2012. He earned his B.A. in English Language and Literature, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge in 1979.  Professor Gates has directed The W.E.B. Institute for African and African American Research — now The Hutchins Center — since arriving at Harvard in 1991 and, during his first 15 years on campus, chaired the Department of Afro-American Studies as it expanded into the Department of African and African American Studies with a full-fledged doctoral program. He also is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and the Brookings Institute.  In 2006, he was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution after tracing his lineage to John Redman, a Free Negro who fought in the Revolutionary War.