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For Joseph London Smith on What Would've Been His 31st Birthday

November 7th is a special date in my family. It’s the day my grandson was born. We should be celebrating him. The best I can do is pay tribute.


Joseph London Smith was born with a smile on his face.

The day after hip hop artist Takeoff of the Grammy award-winning group Migos was shot and killed at a Houston bowling alley, a YouTube video went viral showing Deion Sanders, the NFL Hall of Famer and coach of Jackson State University’s football team, telling his players in Houston for a game: “Y’all ain’t leaving the hotel until further notice.”

I don’t blame him for reacting that way. Takeoff, whose birth name was Kirshnick Khari Ball, was reportedly the unintended victim of gunfire that erupted at a private gathering following an altercation over a dice game. He was 28 years old. Sanders went on to warn the players to thoughtfully consider who’s around them and the situations they put themselves in.

“People who are influential are leaving us consistently,” Sanders continued. “You cannot kick it with the same dudes . . . They can talk about you, ridicule you, clown you, but you’re going to have to disconnect. So, get that in your spirit.”

I understand coach Sanders wanting to keep those young men close to be on the safe side. Proximity to individuals who do not value life, who would fire a weapon over a minor falling out, can have deadly consequences, particularly for Black men and boys. Tragically, my grandson, Joseph London Smith, became one of them. He wasn’t kicking it with some bad dudes on the night of August 13, but a bullet that wasn’t meant for him found him anyway. 

Joseph with a camera doing what he loved best.

Joseph was a photographer and produced short films and music videos through his J. Smith Films Company. He was scouting locations to film a music video that night and checked out a club in northwest Atlanta. He had arrived back at his car when shots rang out. According to Atlanta police, there was a spat outside the club over a parking space. Joseph, whom most people called JoJo, had no part in it. But because of growing gun violence, Joseph, a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, a cousin and a friend, died at the scene. Two other people were shot. A suspected accomplice is in custody, but the shooter is still at large.

Because it remains an open homicide investigation that is all I can say about it.  

Joseph and his mother, Shenna.

November 7th was Joseph’s birthday; he would have turned 31. That day, his mother Shenna and his siblings and friends in Minneapolis celebrated Joseph's life with a prayer, a balloon release and a dinner in his honor. My son, Joseph's father, Josibiah ("Jay"), and other family members celebrated him in Arizona. They refused to allow the shooter to deprive us of honoring the beautiful soul who graced this earth for 30 years. 

Tribute poster made by Joseph's friends in his honor.

We should have heard Joseph utter the parting three words he always said whether we were talking on the phone or in person, “I love you.” Instead, my family has joined countless others grieving a loved one lost to gun violence, huddled in pain and asking, “When will this senseless killing end?” 

It has taken some time for me to be able to share this heartbreaking grief. Remembering Joseph on his birthday hasn't made it any easier. But I want people to know who he was and that he loved deeply and was deeply loved and cherished by his family.

Joseph and his father Josibiah

JoJo was born smiling. Josibiah and JoJo’s mother, Shenna, welcomed him into the world in November of 1991, in Chicago. Joseph was the younger sibling of Essie, Alexis and Francois, and the older brother of Shaude. Although Joseph was plenty cool, he would tell anybody that his mother was one of his best friends. She always encouraged him, and they had a great relationship. Their last trip together was to Myrtle, Beach, South Carolina. She said it was one of their best because they were both totally relaxed and he felt his future was bright.

Playing chess in Prague with his father and cousin

JoJo possessed an easy-going charm that made interacting with others effortless. He said that is a trait he inherited from his father. Joseph had a smile that could melt your heart. He looked at life as an adventure to enjoy and he said he felt personally responsible for contributing to that enjoyment. At his funeral, speaker after speaker opined that if you were around JoJo long enough, you were guaranteed to have lots of laughs. He brought that perspective to his photography business and perhaps it was this attitude that made his photographs of families in particular, appear so joyous. As one speaker said, "JoJo just knew how to make people feel uplifted." 

Joseph loved to travel and learn about other cultures, food, music, and what made people tick. After family trips with his father to numerous countries in Europe, including Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; Venice, Italy and London, England, he made an observation he hadn't expected—that people everywhere wanted a similar thing: to be happy and to be loved. 

JoJo chilling in Venice and Myrtle Beach.

JoJo had so many different interests and he pursued them all, from singing and rapping, to working as a foreign car mechanic, to designing clothing and scenic backdrops, to dancing.

Joseph in his cap and gown, with mother Shenna (left); with his friend and business partner (right).

He attended FAIR Middle School in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, Brandon Hall Prep School in Atlanta, Georgia, and Culver Military Summer Academy in Culver, Indiana. Joseph graduated from Minnesota Transitions Charter School in Minneapolis, Minnesota and received a degree from UTI Auto Technology School in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Joseph with his brother François (left) and his sisters and friend (right).

But it was really the day that he picked up a camera that changed the trajectory of his career. He became obsessed with taking photographs and was wonderful at it. His passion evolved into a love of filmmaking and motivated him to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Joseph gained a particular love for editing, which is not the first love of many filmmakers.

Joseph and his daughter Josie imitating her Dad.

He had a knack for editing and worked fast. Word spread of his talent for directing and producing music videos. He believed that every artist should have a professional video no matter their budget. And even though he began getting work from bigger named artists, he always wanted to give the up-and-comers something that they could feel proud of.

Last year, he moved to Atlanta and began working with top tier hip hop artists like Lil Baby. Of course, JoJo recognized there were risks associated with proximity to the hip hop culture. That wasn’t the lifestyle he lived. As a family, we were concerned. His mother and sisters used to admonish him, “Get in, do your job and get out.” 

Joseph and his grandmother.

Gun violence isn’t limited to any one community or music genre. It’s everywhere and can happen at any time. JoJo understood that and didn’t tempt fate. He rarely went to clubs just to hang out. To him, a good time was inviting a few friends over to his apartment to play cards or going fishing with his grandpa in Mississippi. 

Joseph with his mother and sisters.

Like so many stories we hear about gun victims in their prime, Joseph was soaring. He had new dreams, which he shared with me during our last conversation two weeks before his death. “Grandma, I want to start making movies that mean something. I want to go to film school.” 

Joseph and his cousins during intermission at the theater in London during their special evening with Grandma Chaz

I was thrilled. He shared clips of a documentary he was working on with a motivational speaker in East St. Louis, Illinois, named Ashley Williams. It is about breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, trauma and, yes, violence—such an important topic. Helping to complete the film would be a wonderful tribute to his legacy. We are also hoping to establish a scholarship in his name for an aspiring artist to attend film school.

We are so proud of everything Joseph accomplished in his life. But to him, nothing was greater than being the father of Josie, the beautiful little girl he and Daisy brought to the world.

Joseph and Daisy with their daughter Josie.

They read books, played games, made videos and he even taught her how to operate a camera. She shared his love of plays and all types of music and he was proud to give her the opportunity to attend her first opera, "Tosca," at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. We told Josie that if she didn't like the opera or if she got bored, she would have a chance to leave during the intermission. Joseph got the biggest kick out of the fact that Josie insisted on staying for the entire opera and expressed her desire to return in the future. They were inseparable. As much as all of us are grieving, my heart absolutely breaks for Joseph’s mom and dad, and especially for little Josie. No parent should have to bury their child. A 7-year-old should not have to lose a parent so suddenly and senselessly. 

Proud dad Joseph with his daughter Josie.

I thank everyone for their kind words, letters, flowers and prayers during this extraordinarily difficult time. I must say a special thank-you to a few people starting with John P. Nuckols, Executive Vice President of the L.A. Opera, for the kindness he showed me the morning I received the devastating news. I’m new to the  L.A. opera board, and we were having breakfast to discuss upcoming events when I got the call that turned my world upside down. His empathy and compassion created an environment that allowed me to safely express my grief. 

Another green Joseph loved, the golf course.

Sylvia Neil the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Lyric Opera, and Anthony Freud, Lyric's General Director, President and CEO, reached out immediately to provide comfort and offer whatever assistance was needed by me and my family. As a long serving subscriber and a board member of the Lyric Opera, I would frequently discuss upcoming operas with Joseph, and he was particularly looking forward to this season's contemporary opera "Proximity," introducing a trio of new American artists to the Lyric's stage: Daniel Bernard Roumain, Caroline Shaw and John Luther Adams. He was impressed that Roumain's composition includes a libretto by Anna Deveare Smith, a storyteller he adored. Ironically, one of the segments of "Proximity" deals with the devastating impact of gun violence on cities and neighborhoods in America. I will sponsor a performance in Joseph's name. 

Erica Ford of LIFE Camp, Inc. is another angel who came to our family's aid, offering the deepest sympathy and much-needed practical advice on steps to take when a loved one has been lost due to violence. We have written about her and her wonderful violence intervention organization. Erica even established a Peace Week in New York and her work has been recognized nationally by President Biden. "Everyday people are walking around infected with the disease of violence," she sayd, "and the trauma--the catalyst for the disease--often goes unaddressed. It's time to make peace a lifestyle." I couldn't agree more. 

As we remember Joseph and celebrate his life, I pray for all the families of victims out there and for the day when no family will have to be faced with that devastating call.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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