LEVEL Celebrates Its Best Men of 2020
Photos: Getty Images (8)/Herron: Elias Williams for LEVEL

LEVEL Celebrates Its Best Men of 2020

From neighbors to fathers to first responders, anyone can be the best of us

Last December, LEVEL was born. All around us, magazines and websites were doing their year-end thing, and not just their year-end thing — their decade-end thing. Here we were, coming into the world like a mewling newborn, launching a brand new publication about the growth of Black men, just as everyone was saying goodbye to the decade that had given us everything from Black Panther to birtherism. How will we feel a year from now? we thought then. When we’re a year old, how will we look back on 2020?

Here’s the answer: shitshow.

There’s no reason to rehash yet again what we all already know: 2020 was unlike any year any of us have ever lived through. All the synonyms for “trash” and all the synonyms for “fire” can’t possibly be enough to express what it felt like in the eye of Covid and amplified racism. But there was good to be found as well. Specifically, good that let us know we were doing the right thing when we launched in December 2019.

Because these past 12 months have shown us, time and time again, how Black men are rising to the challenge. They’re speaking truth to power. They’re saving lives. They’re creating art that’s getting us through some of the darkest times imaginable. They’re supporting and protecting Black women. Whether pushed by their partners, their children, themselves, or the world at large, they’re growing in ways that our fathers never dreamed of doing. And because of those things, they’re the honorees of our inaugural Best Man Awards.

Throughout the week, we’ll look back on 2020 in some thornier ways and grapple with how we’ve disappointed ourselves and those we owe the most. But for now, we’re thrilled to give these men their flowers and remind them (and you) of their contributions to making the world a better place. If we got through this, we can get through anything.

Best Man 2020: Quarantine Kings D-Nice, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland

America would be boring as hell without Black folks. Whether dominating sports, dictating trends, or bending social media and meme culture to our will, Black people are the purveyors of this nation’s cultural GDP. And that production only becomes more innovative and prolific when times get rough. To wit: Our trio of honorees, who responded to the early uncertain pandemic days of 2020 by becoming a guiding light, armed with nothing more than their Rolodexes, turntables, and occasionally spotty Wi-Fi connections.

On March 17 — days after the NBA suspended its season and Cardi B told us this coronavirus shit is real — D-Nice began his mission to captivate a world of quarantined people. Broadcasting from his Los Angeles apartment, he spun hourslong DJ sets on his Instagram Live that affectionately became known as Club Quarantine. As he unspooled the lineage of Black music, from Patti Labelle to OutKast to Amerie, audiences grew swiftly. Within a week, he cruised past an altitude of 100,000 simultaneous viewers; the pivotal session featured a comment section for the ages, with everyone from Janet Jackson to President-elect Joe Biden to Drake chiming in.

That same month, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz created their own must-see brand of escapism. A beat battle between the superproducers — with each playing their most iconic tracks — evolved into an all-out digital phenomenon. Soon after, Verzuz was born, producing music-maker faceoffs that were equal parts competitive and celebratory, bringing together the likes of Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, Brandy and Monica, and most recently, heated foes Gucci Mane and Jeezy.

These were more than just public services orchestrated by music legends. Verzuz and Club Quarantine became communal, spiritual experiences, uniting loved ones and complete strangers alike. In a time when social distancing was new, the sessions gave us a new kind of connected experience. They made the world feel much smaller — the size of a dancefloor, to be precise — and the confines of our homes feel imaginary. Outside of our windows, the coronavirus raged on, continuing to spread its devastation globally. But whenever Swizz, Timbo, or D-Nice flashed the bat signal announcing that they were broadcasting live on IG, everything felt right again — even if just for a few moments. That’s what we call Black power.

John Kennedy

Best Man 2020: Trailblazer Ricky Martin

Long since an icon, the global pop star broke the mold by fighting for Puerto Rico alongside islanders, while many of his peers stayed silent.

When you think back to see who made a difference in this year of uncertainty, Ricky Martin may not be the first to come to mind. But one look at what Puerto Rico grappled with in 2020 — hurricanes, earthquakes, corrupt politics, not to mention the same racism and pandemic that besieged the United States — the Latinx icon who never lets la gente down is an obvious choice.

Last year, Martin returned to the island calling for the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rossello alongside Bad Bunny, who paused his European tour in 2019 to join his people in the streets. That struggle continued in 2020; alongside rapper Residente, the two recorded “Cántalo” in solidarity with Puerto Ricans, letting the government (and the people) know they would not stand for a homophobic and misogynist leader in power.

Fans of both Martin and Bad Bunny know well that Martin walked so that the reggaeton superstar could fly. For one, they are undeniably loved by both young people and their abuelas — no easy feat, considering the conservative views that often cause generational schisms in Latinx families. From politics to the freedom of gender expression, Martin quietly set a blueprint for young pop stars to bring authenticity to the stage and the issues they believe in most.

Jada Gomez

Best Man 2020: Hometown Hero 2 Chainz

It’s never been hard for the man born Tauheed Epps to seem larger than life. If it’s not his height — 6 feet, 5 inches, which didn’t hurt his hoop dreams when he played for a state-champ high school basketball team and Alabama State — it’s his tastes. (Those tastes aren’t just big; as his longtime GQ-turned-Viceland video series reminds you, they’re the most expensivest.) But after a year in which his longtime entrepreneurial streak found new outlets, the largest things about 2 Chainz might just be his loyalties to Atlanta and to Black-owned businesses.

The beats of that arc started to emerge in 2017 when the artist opened his Pink Trap House in Atlanta; originally a marketing ploy for his album Pretty Girls Love Trap Music, the spot expanded into a community asset, offering everything from art shows to AIDS tests. As Chainz’s investment prowess grew, so did his commitment to the 404. Last year, he joined the ownership group of the College Park Skyhawks, his hometown’s NBA G League affiliate. And when the pandemic hit, he didn’t just partner with Sprite to provide cash to out-of-work DJs or participate in a charity livestream to benefit Atlanta restaurant K&K Soul Food — he created a whole-ass investment fund for HBCU student entrepreneurs.

So yeah, 2020 brought another album worth of heat from Chainz. (No promises, but So Help Me God! seems like it might be enough for him to crack the Top 10 on next year’s 40 Over 40 list.) But it also brought a new understanding of what it means to give back. Investing in restaurants and cannabis brands is one thing; investing in the community is another. And when you’ve got both? That’s TRU love.

Peter Rubin

Best Man 2020: Father of the Year Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade always seemed like a coachable player throughout the 16 seasons of his NBA career, but his openness to learning has extended into a brilliant, post-basketball life. The way he spoke about his family throughout the year was one of the most delightful displays of personal evolution and empathy for any athlete.

In February, the three-time champion released D. Wade: Life Unexpected, a documentary on his career and life that more than anything revealed how much of an impact his daughter Zaya has had on him — more specifically, how her journey has educated Wade and his wife, Gabrielle Union, about gender and sexuality. “Zaya has known for nine years,” the 38-year old Miami star told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America when discussing his daughter’s gender identity. “I knew early on that I had to check myself.” Unlike other dads of similar ilk who are more likely to torment their children into rigid confines of the gender binary, Wade piped down and allowed himself to learn from — even be mentored by — his young daughter.

Many public figures have refused their queer children a semblance of agency, either through being queerphobic or just avoiding them altogether. Wade and Union instead acknowledged their own shortcomings and allowed Zaya to steer them toward a more loving embrace of non-binary experience. Wade then shared his lessons with us in a way that didn’t feel like a total cash grab: “Right now, it’s through us because she’s 12 years old,” he told Ellen DeGeneres in March, “but eventually it’ll be through her.”

Zaya’s becoming is but a star in the constellation of his life, one that’s led him to seriously examine his way of being in all other aspects. D. Wade the player always tried to do it the right way; now, in 2020, when so many celebrities are being touted as “cultural leaders,” Dwyane Wade the man continues to lead by following.

Tirhakah Love

Best Man 2020: Driver of Change Bubba Wallace

Standing up looks different for everyone, but it’s never without risk. It wasn’t without risk when Colin Kaepernick started sitting, then kneeling for the national anthem. It wasn’t without risk when LeBron James started speaking out about his experiences as a Black man in America. And it damn sure wasn’t without risk when the only Black driver in NASCAR stood up and called shit what it was after the murder of George Floyd.

“But they’re athletes,” you say. “Millionaires with lifelong material security all but assured. What’s the risk?” Ask Bubba Wallace. Ask him what it was like to talk about systemic racism knowing how a large portion of your sport’s fans is going to respond. Ask him what it was like to push NASCAR to ban the Confederate battle flag at races. Ask him what it was like, not two weeks later, to walk into his team garage and find a noose.

A lot of athletes stood up in the right way this year. George Hill sparked an all-too-brief wildcat strike in the NBA after Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake. WNBA players spoke out not just against the powers that be, but the powers that owned their teams. Soccer and baseball players took a knee; Olympic medalists stood at the front lines of protests. But Bubba Wallace did so knowing that he was the only — the only — Black athlete in his league. That’s what standing up really looks like.

Peter Rubin

Best Man 2020: Political Disruptor Raphael Warnock

If you’re going to be anywhere in Georgia between now and January 5, then there’s something you need to be prepared for: A maelstrom of racist-ass commercials all aimed at one Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. What started as a race to usurp incumbent Kelly Loeffler — an unelected appointee and singer of Fox News’ greatest hits who may or may not belong in jail right now — has become one of two runoff elections that will determine the way the country will be governed for the next four years and beyond.

At the center of all this attention is Warnock, the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor; running ads where he walks his dog and fights back against accusations that he wants to empty jails (dog whistle) and victimize the police (dog-whistling intensifies). But behind the high-road-taking is a man standing tall, a man willing to change the fate of America, a man empowered by a firm grasp of his morals and the faith of a mustard seed. There’s no way Warnock could have anticipated this whirlwind of attention, going on CNN and answering questions about sermons he attended years ago or revisiting the decade-old Jeremiah Wright conversation. But here he is, ready to take it all on, just as he took on the fight to expand Medicaid and to advocate for action on climate change long before his Senate run.

At this moment, we have no way to know exactly what will happen just a few days into 2021. But we do know one thing. Whether or not all of Stacey Abrams’ hard work to mobilize voters pays off; whether or not the senate flips; whether or not Warnock himself is victorious: There is no denying that Georgia has birthed a new political player ready to leave his mark.

David Dennis, Jr.