By Tracy Daniels
Fab 5 Freddy is a visual artist, filmmaker and a hip hop pioneer who recently arrived in the cannabis game and is going hard. He co-founded the social equity brand B Noble with business partners Ron Samuel and Bernard Noble, the latter having his prison story featured in Freddy’s film Grass is Greener and is the inspiration behind the brand. They teamed up with leading multi-state operator (MSO) Curaleaf to produce high quality products and build widespread awareness around social equity issues at stake in the biz. Tracy Daniels caught up with her homie @fab5freddy to discuss his journey to becoming a cannabis entrepreneur.
TRACY DANIELS: Tell us about your first time smoking weed.
FAB 5 FREDDY: My dad was a serious cannabis aficionado and I would see him roll up and smoke with his friends. As a little boy, I went into the bathroom with some of his stash and tried to roll it in notebook paper, and obviously didn't know what the hell I was doing. He came into the bathroom like, “Sniff sniff, what’s going on?” I was like, “Oh nothing, Daddy!” And he was like, “Oh, okay.” When I grew older, I realized he definitely knew what was up because he could smell it. Then following in his footsteps as a young teenager, I would smoke with my homies, you know. By then I had figured out where my dad kept his stash and I'd dip into that and help myself.
I bet it was good.
Yes it was! But weed was so different then, mostly Mexican, Colombian and Jamaican sun-grown weed that always had some seeds. Back then, serious smokers often had small holes burnt in their clothes from a dropped sizzling seed, especially if you were wearing polyester shirts or slacks from back in the day! So the levels and types of cannabis have changed dramatically with all this new cultivation science and strains growing super duper high yield weed. Most folks smoking these days have never even seen seeds!
For real! We also didn't have access to as much information as we have now, so I appreciate how things have evolved.
Yeah, me too. And, I was a bit more curious than the average kid, so I started flipping through High Times magazine in the early eighties to check out articles on the plant and growing processes around the world. The centerfold was always some incredible looking weed usually grown somewhere exotic. I got to see the cream of the crop, no pun intended, but it was beyond what was readily available back then.
And what was your most memorable time smoking weed?
I have some amazing up in smoke memories burning weed with friends and legends no longer with us, like Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and many others reading this from cannabis heaven. Hanging in the downtown scene back in the day with friends like Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, Glenn O’Brien and Jean-Michel Basquiat is when I first tasted that next-level California weed not many people had access to at the time. Shep Gordon [Super Mensch], Blondie’s manager at the time, had his own strain of Maui Wowie that he grew at his home in Hawaii. We became good friends and he stills produces sun-grown weed from the original cuttings we smoked in the eighties! Even today when I light up with Shep, it triggers fond memories of the exact same smell, taste and head that we experienced years ago.
Repping the zeitgeist as always, Fab! What was the inspiration to make Grass is Greener?
Grass Is Greener evolved during a phone conversation with my good friend and now business partner, Ron Samuel. He's an African American brother from California and a legacy participant in cannabis, having moved fire flower grown in Humboldt to parts near and far. He really wanted to be part of the legal business and attended numerous business gatherings as one of the few people of color in attendance. He became frustrated because he saw the potential coming, but had served time as a victim of the War on Drugs, so he’s legally forbidden from being involved in business in a plant touching capacity. These are the roadblocks legacy players like him face when trying to engage in an industry they helped pioneer, how unfair is that?
During our call, Ron shared his brilliant idea to start a consultancy business called Forty Acres and A GreenHouse, a clever reference to the forty acres and a mule former African slaves were promised after the Civil War ended. I loved the idea and further relayed the irony that people of color were at the forefront decades ago as legacy operators laying the foundations for this business. I shared how cannabis was popularized widely on many early jazz records by the top musicians of the era. And how cutting-edge artists from rock to reggae to R&B were smokers and advocates, plus major hip hop artists like Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, Method Man and Redman, who I introduced to America on Yo! MTV Raps. I told Ron I thought it was a dope idea for a film and went to work immediately. Then on 4/20, 2019, it dropped worldwide on Netflix to amazing response and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes!
What impact has Grass Is Greener had on legislators working on cannabis policies?
A few weeks before it dropped on Netflix, Harlem cannabis legend and my good friend Branson, who also appears in the film, connected me to my local state representative Al Taylor. Al said, “Fab, I've been hearing about this film you made and would love to see it cause I've been pushing for adult use in NY.” He and his wife came to my house with state [Assembly Majority Leader] Crystal Peoples-Stokes from Buffalo and I screened the movie for them. They all loved it, and also became very emotional during the screening.
Was it a particular moment or was it the whole film?
When I'm interviewing writer and activist Asha Bandele, she gets emotional speaking about how her son was killed, you know, drug-related stuff, and suddenly it’s very sad watching this strong woman shed a tear on screen. While interviewing Bernard Noble's family, they break down in tears remembering all the drama from the warden’s broken promise that he could attend his brother's funeral. Those are pretty emotional moments where you’re caught up in the reality of it all, and they really responded to that. Because Grass is Greener explains all the lies that have been told and the racism behind why this plant has been criminalized, and how we've been lied to for nearly a century.
A couple of days later, Crystal Peoples-Stokes invited me up to Albany to screen the film for about thirty representatives of color. I personally helped several of them arrange screenings and talks for their constituents to show them the real deal about cannabis. So yes, the film thankfully had a serious effect on those elected officials who voted for the cannabis legislation we now have in New York. The bill was authored by Crystal Peoples-Stokes back in 2014, and now New York has the most progressive legislation in the country, which is mind blowing!
How did Bernard Noble’s involvement in Grass Is Greener come about?
Well, I really wanted to dig deep and illustrate a victim of the nonsensical War on Drugs, specifically nonviolent victims of color. Many southern states have draconian laws that disproportionately criminalize Black and brown folks who fill state prisons at five times the rate of their white counterparts. I had several options to consider from different parts of the country. But a year or two before I made the film I saw a show on Vice TV about Bernard’s case. It was so sad to see this guy was given a thirteen year prison sentence for like two joints worth of cannabis. I was like what the hell, like why? So, when that tearjerking moment happened while filming his mother and his sisters, it just touched me deeply. And, I knew then that moment would become a significant part of the film.
He got hard labor, right?
Yeah! And Bernard explained to me that hard labor meant taking inmates in a windowless van to a field of cotton. When the correction officer told him, “Hey, man, get out there and get to picking cotton,” Bernard was like, “Oh hell no, I'm not picking no cotton!” So, he was put in the hole, aka solitary confinement, for like 60 days or more. That’s when you’re seriously locked down, getting out one hour a day to shower, get some sunlight and exercise. I told Bernard, “Man listen, I had no idea. I’m thinking of old movies, you know, people making license plates, wearing striped uniforms, breaking up rocks on the roadside!” But no! They wanted him to literally pick cotton like a slave. So, Bernard had been in prison for seven years, and two days after interviewing his family, we got word that his parole had been granted. We had to wait another two months and then flew back down to Louisiana just to film him coming out of prison. And that's when I met Bernard Noble.
That was an inspiring moment! How did that lead to the B Noble brand?
That was another conversation with my business partner Ron. Because again, he was incarcerated and he understands what that does to somebody's life. I was like, “Man, this Bernard Noble situation, let's create a cannabis brand in his name to inform people about this damaging history and try to correct that narrative.” We decided to call it B Noble with the idea of raising awareness of the lies we’ve been told and giving back a portion of our earnings to organizations fixing the harm done. To put these ideas into full effect, we collaborated with world class brand builders Aboud + Aboud to visualize our narrative and create a business plan. This is all happening at the onset of the pandemic by the way. So we're locked in, but in hyper hustler mode with an ample dose of D boy energy so you know, things are moving and grooving. We joke sometimes like, “Man, it’s amazing how we put this together" with Ron living in the Netherlands, Aboud + Aboud in London, I’m in New York City, Bernard is in New Orleans and our chief revenue officer Jessica Henley is in Cali. We did it all just as Covid shut down the world. No way could we have done this without the technology we thankfully had available. We docusigned the deal on 4/20/21 and soon after we were in business! So it was the best of times building this brand during the worst of times imaginable.
What impact has this had on Bernard’s life?
The entire world meets Bernard in Grass is Greener when he walks out of prison. He’s such a nice guy. Just as he walks out he says, “Man, I've been trying to figure out what's going on, there’s people I met in prison doing time for less weed than what I went in for, and some doing more time… I’ve been seeing stories on the news about cannabis becoming big business, and I'm in here for this!?” It was all confusing to him. So we worked with Bernard every step of the way and let him know we had a real possibility of making something happen that would change his life and help others. We partnered with Curaleaf, the world's biggest cannabis company, who've been very supportive and involved. The product went on sale 7/13/2021 in two states [Massachusetts and Maryland] to echo the seven years of a thirteen year sentence Bernard served. Our first product is a two joint pre-roll reflective of the amount of cannabis he was arrested for, very specific and intentional.
So Bernard, of course he’s happy to be free and really enjoying his new life as an advocate for other victims. Which makes sense since his case had become a cause celeb leading up to his parole. People like [music producer] Jason Flom from The Innocence Project and hedge fund billionaire Dan Loeb fought hard and lobbied tirelessly to get him out of jail. It’s been incredible working with Bernard these last couple of years, he's always grateful. He’s amazed that we’ve become good friends because he was a fan of Yo! MTV Raps, and now we talk on a regular basis. He’s also one of the funniest people I know! The jokes are nonstop with him and he's really funny. So it’s like his true self has emerged.
Why is it important for Curaleaf to engage with B Noble?
Because Curaleaf clearly and sincerely wanted to address the elephant in the room, which is the unjust targeting and harm caused to people of color nationwide. Particularly nonviolent cannabis arrest rates that disproportionately criminalize and victimize Black and brown people in spite of similar usage rates among white people. That was something that Curaleaf wanted to sincerely address. They hired Jason White, Raheem Uqdah, Khadijah Tribble and other people of color to help guide them to do the right thing in the right way. And they really have, along with distributing and promoting our product in eleven states with more to come. B Noble is available across the country right now which makes us a Black-owned MSO (multi state operator) with a multi state message!
I'm asking because it's unique for companies to genuinely give a shit, you know.
Yeah, that’s a good point. I call the B Noble venture conscious capitalism and entrepreneurial activision on our part. As a serious creative, I could never justify operating solely out of greed. So it's a sincere enterprise. What we’re doing is not just lip service, we’re cutting checks to beneficiaries working to heal the harm caused by the War on Drugs. There’s a negative cloud around MSOs, aka corporate cannabis, and it's great to see how Curaleaf has stepped up in the right way.
Do you hope more MSOs will follow Curaleaf’s lead?
Yeah, it would be smart for other MSOs to follow their lead. Curaleaf’s “Rooted in Good” initiative focuses on company-wide change in terms of inclusion and engagement that’s helping to bring more people of color into the business. Our business is reflective of Crystal People-Stokes’s legislation by not only providing a quality cannabis product, but also loudly addressing the issues and assisting those unfairly victimized. And let's be real, when you do the right thing it’s not just good for the bottom line, it’s karmically and spiritually beneficial because cannabis is a spiritual plant. Flower Power must be Noble!
Which organizations does B Noble support?
Mass Cultivated in Massachusetts is one. They work with formerly incarcerated folks and prepare them to work in the business from cultivation to dispensaries. There’s the North Lawndale Employment Network in Illinois providing job placement for formerly incarcerated people. Changing Perceptions [in Washington, DC] helps former inmates adjust to their new freedom. Over in New Jersey, we work with From The Block To The Boardroom, which provides economic opportunities and entrepreneurship training. It’s a very humbling feeling to cut checks for these orgs now that B Noble is becoming profitable.
Do you still find resistance to making change that allows nonviolent offenders to engage with and have an equitable stake in the industry?
Sadly, cannabis remains federally illegal. And we’re still waiting for the campaign promises Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made to be realized. The MORE Act and SAFE Banking Act are two bills passed in the House that will fix the bullshit nationally, so this needs to be a priority! But, on the state level there’s legal and medical cannabis available in more than thirty states which is real progress. Here in New York, people are very excited about making money, but there’s still a need to get language into bills across more states that support those most victimized. And, there's still a lot of criminal justice reform that needs to happen. There are people incarcerated right now for nonviolent cannabis offenses, some with decades long sentences, while billions are being made legally. Why aren’t those people free? That's a problem! So to the people reading this, I encourage you to reach out and see what's going on in your state and let your representatives know that you don't think it's right and that they need to be noble for real! When I tell folks Bernard Noble’s story, they’re shocked! The reality of what’s still happening is draconian and horrific! It just reminds me how much more work needs to be done to raise awareness in this country.
What's the feedback on the B Noble product been like?
The feedback has been great! There’s a lot of repeat business from people sharing info about their favorite strains. Our two joint pre-roll just became available at Curaleaf dispensaries in New Jersey and the response has been very enthusiastic. We’re still in the early stages of turning up our marketing assault, so watch out for that cause it's dropping soon! We’re developing an advanced social networking campaign to inform our consumers about the work B Noble’s doing. And the narrative is not just about the high quality, cough up a lung fire-weed, but also what's happening with the various programs we support and the issues we’re addressing. That's how we plan to market B Noble, by showing real results from the work the brand is doing around these issues.
It seems like activism is synonymous with your product.
It’s the brand DNA! And each consumer purchase activates their support for the issues we address!
When in your life did you decide that advocacy was important?
Growing up, my dad was very dialed in on social issues, especially those affecting oppressed people. So naturally I became plugged in to the struggles of the time, you know, anti-war, Black Power, women's rights, civil rights, all those things. I heard about people fighting to normalize cannabis since I was a little guy. In fact, that influenced the way I approached it in Grass is Greener, all the protest movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. How activist and poet Allen Ginsberg placed it in the agenda and made it a front page issue, you know, ‘Legalize pot!’ So I’ve been aware of all the bullshit going on that people have been fighting against for decades. As we hopefully are moving closer to federal legalization, all these non-violent cannabis offenders should be freed and have their records expunged, you know, wiped clean. Just as this current administration has promised to do! I think about Brittney Griner’s sad situation in Russia over a vape cartridge with less than one gram of cannabis oil. The fight to bring her home [has been] ironic considering cannabis is still federally illegal in the U.S. and a person of color could get a similar sentence. Like Bernard’s thirteen year sentence for less than three grams. Considering the harmless and medically beneficial nature of this plant, I’m further frustrated by the fact that alcohol remains legal with widespread use, yet takes nearly 100,000 lives annually. All of this motivates me to be an advocate both personally and professionally.
What does the future of the cannabis industry look like for you?
It's really wait and see, but clearly some major positive inroads have been made. Here in New York it's still all medical, and B Noble was the first whole flower available here since the fall of 2021. More recently, pre-rolls were allowed, so our pre-roll two-packs are now available. By the time readers see this, the regulations from the OCM [Office of Cannabis Management] in New York should have dropped. I'm talking all the fine print details about how cannabis businesses can function, dispensaries, consumption lounges, delivery services, and all types of cultivation. And I hear there’s eventually going to be a sweep of the renegade gray market businesses all across the city. But hopefully very soon there will be citywide legal dispensaries and chill places to enjoy smoking cannabis that provide New Yorkers and visitors easy access to some real Flower Power!
What’s the future look like for B Noble?
We’re a cannabis content lifestyle brand with a loud message about social equity and criminal justice reform. So we’re turning up the volume on our messaging with an array of dynamic social media content. Ideas are in the works for a Grass Is Greener TV series following the blueprint of my Netflix film. We’ve been thinking about what a B Noble dispensary would look like and dope ideas for an out of this world consumption lounge concept. We also plan to hit the California market hard with new B Noble branded products. We developed an infused pre-roll product we’re calling Champ and Little Champs intended to knock out the California consumer, and hopefully some other states we’re selling in now. These are infused pre-rolls with a blend of high quality cannabis, all flower, no shake, no trim, no flavoring, but with some amazing concentrates mixed in. We’re creating an incredibly crafted product to compete with the best on the shelves right now. We’re also working with skateboard entrepreneur and filmmaker Mikey Alfred’s Illegal Civilization on some unique collaborations. Cannabis cultivation legend Mario Guzman (Sherbinski) is developing genetics for a next level B Noble Gelato strain we’re very very excited about. Ultimately, we’re looking to take B Noble global. We’re currently in talks with Fotmer Life Sciences, based in Uruguay, who produce huge amounts of cannabis that ship to overseas countries for medical usage. But with adult usage clearly on its way, we feel brands like B Noble are what's needed and we hope to lead the way on a global scale.
Any final words for the readers?
Once again, people are in prison for nonviolent cannabis possession right now and they need to be freed! The fact that they're not says we still have a lot of work to do! So, B Intelligent, B Educated, B Involved, and B Noble!
A version of this article was published in Honeysuckle's milestone 15th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
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Featured image: Fab 5 Freddy in his art studio (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture