How Questlove Failed Hip-Hop

The Hunger Strike Boondocks BET

The two-part season finale of the second season of The Boondocks was a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Explicitly accosting BET, The Boondocks presented the network as a cabal of callous, cynical, self-hating and utterly wretched black people who actively sought to undermine black American existence. Though this presentation was clearly satirical, unabashedly wearing its dense layers of hyperbole, parody and reference on its face, there was also a clear contempt for the network. In fact, in one scene the head executive of the network, Deborah Leevil, a grotesque caricature of Debra L. Lee, literally bows to a white man. This unapologetic tone works great for laughs, but it also underscores the simplicity of the episode’s argument. Rather than targeting the industry-wide media practices that make a network like BET sustainable – racialized market segmentation in particular – the show simply points to the network itself, singularly pinpointing BET as a source of black pain and dropping satirical nuclear missiles over its board of directors.

In his essay series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Questlove makes a similar move, berating hip-hop for its cultural dominance, its values, its diminishing of black cool, its parallels with disco and its indifference toward black culture, yet not directly dealing with the world that made and makes hip-hop possible. In this response to his essays, I’m going to simultaneously sketch out this world and highlight hip-hop’s place and history within it.

Remembering Record Labels

In a blog post from earlier this year, I explicitly challenged the notion that hip-hop represents all black people, arguing that it never has, never will and probably never should. I’d like to double-down on that point here because Questlove’s fundamental premise is that “hip-hop has taken over black music.” To underscore this claim, he points to the late 80’s, citing musicians like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Lionel Richie and more, and highlighting how these musicians coexisted with hip-hop acts like Queen Latifah and EPMD. “Hip-hop was just a piece of the pie,” he writes with nostalgia. Nowadays, he feels that hip-hop essentially encompasses the entire pie of black music, rendering other forms of black music susceptible to hip-hop’s follies and making hip-hop itself less potent.

There is a strange gap here. While Questlove has been a member of the music industry as both a producer and consumer for nearly 3 decades, he does not cite any particular mechanisms for how hip-hop rose to its alleged dominance. Even as a mere consumer, in my blog post I was able to cite instances of hip-hop not really dominating black life, mentioning how older relatives found themselves represented by gospel, jazz, movies, television shows and R&B. Despite his years of experience, Questlove strangely fails to offer a single anecdote. For him, hip-hop’s dominance is just a fact, plain and simple. Thus, the contemporary disposition of black music is all hip-hop’s fault.

I think that this is a very strange logical leap, especially if we consider the dominant mechanism through which music has been produced and distributed throughout hip-hop’s existence: record labels. There is a reason why the major label is hip-hop’s favorite whipping boy. Major label deals and their consequences – both good and bad – have had profound impacts on how hip-hop has developed. One useful way to think about the significance of label deals is to look at rap groups where the various members have had different label deals as individual artists. Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example. With the exception of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the core members RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, U-God, GZA, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa have all released at least 3 studio albums through various record labels. Of these numerous individual releases (42, by my count), 9 have gone gold or better. Of those 9, literally all of them were distributed through a major label.

Now this doesn’t mean that record contracts have a 100% success rate. Of the 42 albums in this sample, 22 were released through a major label, so the actual percentage of gold+ sales through record deals is 41% (9/22). And even that percentage should be understood carefully because we have no knowledge of the bottom line – perhaps the albums were given the budget of a platinum album, making a gold certification just a 50% return – and because most of these albums went gold+ in the ’90s and early aughts, meaning that they are time-stamped by a period in which music sales were relatively high.

Even with these caveats in mind, this sample illustrates the tremendous differences that a record contract can make. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang members with the most fame and notoriety – Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface – have released the most major label albums, including one with just the three of them (RZA is more famous for production than rapping, I think). Sure, this is one correspondence among many: they have also each been highly prolific, for example. But I’ll be blunt: when it comes down to it, their fame is a direct product of the power of labels, particularly the power of distribution. Distribution should be taken very seriously. It is much more than printing packaging and shipping. Distribution is the operational apparatus through which albums are made purchasable.

Wu Massacre

Depending on the label’s investment in an artist, this apparatus can be exquisitely thorough. For instance, whenever there is a new Justin Bieber song, he appears on the front page of the iTunes interface. This is no accident. Labels understand that the front page is a valuable position, so they arrange for the song to have heightened visibility. The same goes for physical stores. Labels have been known to sell albums to record stores at slightly lower prices if the stores agree to display the albums more prominently or on a higher shelf. For established artists, labels have even been known to design their tours around cities where albums have historically sold more copies. Though they are not foolproof because people actually do listen to music (I hope), these kinds of direct interventions in the marketplace have profound effects, especially when they are concentrated toward one artist or act or market.

One particular effect is the flexible allocation of resources. Because labels do not have infinite resources, when they concentrate their capital toward one artist/one market, this is at the expense of other artists/markets. Thus, even when labels participate in multiple markets, they don’t tend to have coinciding release dates. They consciously decide when to release albums, considering their fiscal projections for distributing the album as well as looking at other factors, like the release dates for competitors. For example, Roc Nation is never going to release a J. Cole album, a Jay Z album and a Rihanna album all on the same Tuesday, even if all three artists turn in fully mixed and mastered copies of their albums at the same time. More than likely, they will release Rihanna’s album first, then Jay Z’s, then J. Cole’s.

The consequence of that release order may be that J. Cole’s buzz dies down because his hit single drowns in the ever-flowing stream of new Nicki Minaj songs. Consequently, when he releases another single and it does relatively poorly, the label decides to allocate more money toward Rihanna, subsequently limiting J. Cole’s possible talk show and radio appearances to promote the album. Eventually his album is released and it does poorly, so the label drops him. It may be hard to have sympathy for this fictional J. Cole or even the real one, but if you replace him with an entire genre, like jazz or blues, it becomes clear how punishing labels can be. Though labels decide how to intervene in the marketplace, individual artists and entire genres ultimately pay for those interventions, especially if there are negative effects. In the case of hip-hop, during its coming of age, other forms of black music were cast aside in order to concentrate resources toward hip-hop. In other words, hip-hop didn’t take over black music. Black music was left behind. And I’d be willing to bet that it was left behind precisely because black people have questionably been assumed to be its only viable listeners.

I Never Saw Luther Vandross on TRL

When I interviewed the rapper Skyzoo a few years ago, he mentioned being deeply inspired by Chi-Ali, a rapper who he saw on Yo! MTV raps as a kid. I never watched Yo! MTV Raps because I wasn’t even born during the first two years that it aired, so I don’t have anything to say about the show’s content. That said, the existence of shows that were exclusively dedicated to rap is worth considering. In my own lifetime, before Youtube, I can recall watching Cita’s World, Rap City, Direct Effect, Sucker Free and MTV Jams (it was a crappy show before it was a crappy channel). In contrast, for other forms of black music, I solely recall watching Midnight Love and Soul Train. That’s it. And Midnight Love came on at midnight, while Soul Train came on on Saturdays at noon, so these other forms of black music were culturally and temporally marginalized.

This marginalization was not accidental. Artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Isley Brothers were all still signed to major labels, and they continually toured and appeared on television, but they were notably quarantined. I never saw Luther Vandross appear on TRL. I never saw Anita Baker on 106 and Park. I never saw Kevin Aviance on the cover of Vibe. These are not just errors of history. They are the effects of conscious efforts to construct and maintain markets. And because these markets (and subsequently the artists and genres they contained) were not consistently maintained, some fell into disrepair, obscurity and ruin.

It is always tempting to narrate the rises and falls of musical genre on aesthetic grounds, in terms of coolness and meaning and style. After all, the structural realities that make music possible are rarely visible: music is experienced as music, not the arbitrary machinations of corporate investments and whims. And even artists paint over these structural realities, often vaguely speaking of either song popularity or song quality as if these are unaffected by outside mechanisms. That said, in the same way that there would be no car industry if the US government hadn’t spent decades building highways and untold billions subsidizing American car companies (through bailouts as well as tax breaks), hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t be hip-hop without major labels concentrating their resources on keeping the genre afloat. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop is merely a puppet genre or that the record industry had some evil, conspiratorial agenda. Most recognizable genres are subsidized by the behemoth record industry( In fact, we can see these subsidies happening to “EDM” in real time). It just means that because hip-hop came of age in a marketplace where black music was already circumscribed, labels’ investment in hip-hop necessarily came at the expense of other forms of black music. Structural racism is to blame, not hip-hop’s values.

Of course, hip-hop’s collective values could certainly use some work. I’m tired of hip-hop continually producing the same narratives: rags to riches, remaining rich, being rich, becoming richer, regaining riches after momentarily wearing rags, reminding haters why they’re not rich, recanting respect for other rappers because they sold out to become rich, remembering discounts at Rich’s before it was acquired by Macy’s, etc. Hell, I’m also tired of hip-hop’s gonzo journalistic perspective. In fact, when I reviewed Common’s new album for Paste, my criticism was essentially that the album fails because he raps about himself too much instead of getting inside the mind of other people or other genders (or other species, like Aesop Rock in this song). And the worst offender for me personally is hip-hop’s continued misogyny. The fact that radio versions exist and do well is perfect proof that songs don’t require these words (or more importantly these sentiments) that intentionally and instinctively diminish women.

But all of these practices are ultimately aesthetic, so no matter how successfully hip-hop manages to purge itself of its entrenched iniquities, the fact remains that hip-hop exists within an ecosystem in which black media is already under tight restraint. And I’ve never broken out of handcuffs before, but I’m pretty sure that no amount of finger-wagging, self-scrutiny, nostalgia or brutal satire, will singularly enable escape. Say hip-hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that.

This Excludes Me: On the Dangers of “I Can’t Relate”

I can't relate


“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.

I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” – are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.

There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.

“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.

“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“A subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.

Black And: Reopening Jay Z’s Open Letter

A little more than a year ago, Jay Z announced that he was relinquishing his minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Delivered through his scathing song, “Open Letter” and then later confirmed via press release, the announcement was a strange conclusion to an epic saga that had been unfolding since 2003. Up until that point, the saga had been chronicled extensively by The Atlantic Yards Report and moderately by The New York Times. Yet, when it came to chronicling the feeling of the saga, rather than the details, it was Jay Z himself who told the story, animating it with tales of rising from the ashes and giving back to his community. Given Jay Z’s emphasis on history and pride when narrating the “return” of sports back to Brooklyn, his latest announcement was shocking. The Nets hadn’t even played in the Barclays Center for an entire season; how could Jay leave when things were just getting started? Didn’t he care about Brooklyn? To say it differently: Was he really just “a business, man” above all?

From Jackie to Jay Z”

On March 11, 2010, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center, Reverend Al Sharpton stood before a racially mixed crowd and gave a brief speech in which he praised the sports arena’s construction and the jobs and money he believed its construction would eventually produce. Citing his Brooklyn origins (Brownsville), Sharpton declared that “This project will bring long-term change to the borough that I came from.” Moments later, he mentioned the Brooklyn Dodgers, revealing that when he was a boy, his mother often spoke of how she felt when she saw Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field. Robinson, Sharpton explained to the crowd, “played his first games right here in Brooklyn and broke the color line in terms of Major League Baseball Players.” He then went on to assert that he is glad to have lived to see rapper Jay Z break “the color line in ownership in Brooklyn.” “We’ve gone from Jackie to Jay Z!” he exclaimed. As told by Sharpton, the comparison of Jackie Robinson, Ebbet Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jay Z, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively, is a triumph.

Jay Z invokes a similar comparison on his song “Brooklyn Go Hard”: “I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them/I jack, I rob, I sin/Aww man, I’m Jackie Robinson/’Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen/Lucky me, luckily, they didn’t get me/Now when I bring the Nets, I’m the black Branch Rickey” A la Branch Rickey, the legendary Major League Baseball executive who negotiated Robinson’s entrance into the league, Jay Z becomes a hero, the redeemer of a lost Brooklyn legacy that was exported to Los Angeles in 1958. While Sharpton is a little more tactful (presumably because he is speaking before a mixed audience), both his narrative of Jay Z and Jay Z’s narrative of himself suggest that the triumph they both celebrate is racial — a black victory.

There is nothing wrong with this celebration, but race and history don’t quite tell the full story. Yes, the Nets’ relocation to Brooklyn and Jay Z’s role in their organization are somewhat admirable, but the groundbreaking of the Barclays Center is more than a proud moment in race relations. It is also a moment that is only possible because of certain financial and political relations.

These relations are on full display in the image provided below. At the same groundbreaking ceremony discussed above, Jay Z stands with  Bruce Ratner, the CEO of the real estate company that built the Barclays Center; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former New York State Governor David Paterson; former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; and former president of financial firm Barclays plc, Robert R. Diamond.

Barclays Center Groundbreaking Jay Z

Groundbreaking, March 11, 2010. Via NY Daily News

While Jay Z’s presence in this flank of power is certainly evocative, especially when compared with Jackie Robinson’s equally evocative presence in photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, this easy slippage between Jackie and Jay Z is suspect. When Jackie Robinson was reluctantly accepted into Major League Baseball, he was not a multi-millionaire investing money into a sports organization that might generate him private capital; he did not have multi-million dollar record contracts; he was not an internationally recognizable brand with stakes in multiple industries. Simply put, he was not Jay Z. When blackness alone is used as the criteria for comparing experiences, these crucial distinctions get overlooked.

Debates over the importance of these distinctions within black people’s lives raged long before Jay Z picked up a shovel or a microphone. Black Southerners who migrated North during the 20’s, black Caribbeans who migrated to the the United States during the 80’s and black women, especially feminists, are just a few of the black groups who have spoken of the myriad ways of experiencing blackness. Strangely, despite the persistence of these debates blackness is still spoken of in the singular. How do all of these contingencies get overlooked?

“Black And”

During the last night of the inaugural concert series that christened the Barclays Center, Jay Z responded to a perceived slight by the New York Times with the following words: “I’m a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets.” In this one brief statement he connects his blackness to his simultaneous experiences of growing up poor, growing up as a black male and growing up in a single-parent household. His clothing, a customized Brooklyn Nets jersey, further connected his blackness to his hometown, Brooklyn.

These connections are found throughout Jay Z’s extensive discography and in many instances, they are precisely what make his story so interesting (in addition to the skill with which he tells it). “99 Problems,” for example, features some dialog where a white cop disrespectfully refers to Jay Z as “son” and implies that Jay is uppity for not immediately ceding to the cop’s authority. There’s a deep history embedded in that exchange and Jay Z does an excellent job of invoking that history by subtly emphasizing that he’s being stopped as a black male, not just a black person. There’s no need to exhaust these kinds of moments (there are many), but considering how often they come up in Jay Z’s music and hip-hop in general, we should consider why these other markers of identity – birthplace, gender, class – are always subordinated to race despite being just as present in black people’s experiences.

On one hand, race’s primacy when it comes to understanding black life is simply a function of history. Black people have always been “black and,” but these internal variances were neglected when black people “became” black through slavery and colonialism. This can’t be overemphasized. Blackness was born from a literal gathering up of people and their differences and rendering them all the same. Of course, these differences were not eliminated entirely – music, manners of speaking, personal belongings and memories, among other things, miraculously survived – but being black under colonialism and slavery entailed a degradation of your humanity, no matter where or who you were. And even if you somehow did manage to feel human, as Solomon Northrup’s reminds us, this humanity was always tenuous. Whether freed or enslaved, if you were black, you were always one border, one document, one transaction, one bloodhound away from being torn from humanity.

Black and Rich and Invested

These are the conditions that shaped blackness and continue to shape it. Consequently, blackness has typically been framed homogeneously. There was little time for internal variances because to be in the category itself was to be on the edge of existence.

Yet as Jay Z’s case reminds us, this homogenous frame has limits and always has. At a 2011 press conference for the Barclays Center, which was currently under construction, Jay-Z briefly spoke about what the Barclays Center meant for him and for Brooklyn. Before he gave this speech, he brought up some students from his native Marcy Projects to stand behind him on the podium. It was a heartfelt moment and Jay Z’s pride and happiness are undeniable, but what is left out of the frame or maybe even pushed out of the frame is just as important.

In that particular instance, what is omitted are Jay Z’s incentives for supporting the Barclays Center: the money, the exposure, the bragging rights. Even more obscured are the people footing the bill for these benefits: taxpayers, dislocated residents, business owners, landholders. With these differences and their effects in mind, can we really say that Jay Z and the kids of the Marcy Projects are one in the same? Do we really know what we’re doing when we group such disparate people all together?

Jay Z and kids of Marcy Projects

Via The (Exact date unknown)


We Shall Overcome [Selectively]

If we take the naive view of history, the answer is yes, we know exactly what we are doing. One of the more popular understandings of the Civil Rights Movement is that it was successful precisely because it overcame more hostile and militant approaches to ending black plight. This is certainly true, but this “overcoming” wasn’t quite the spiritual perseverance detailed in “We Shall Overcome.” Labeled  “un-Christian,” “radical,” and “communist,” black people who didn’t quite align with the doctrine of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were actively pushed to the margins. They weren’t invited to meetings, marches and cookouts, and they weren’t allowed to participate in demonstrations. Overcoming was a very active verb.

The benefits of that particular overcoming are clear: I probably wouldn’t be typing this if the SCLC had failed and various splinter organizations (and their particular goals) had been the faces of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, I wonder how necessary it is to continue the homogenizing tradition of the SCLC when it [over]came at the expense of the goals and methods of organizations like SNCC, CORE and later the Combahee River Collective.

To go further, I wonder what we miss when we see Jay Z just as a successful black man, a guy who “made it,” when he is both a guy who made it and a guy who makes it by selling, music, concert tickets, clothing and sports teams to kids like the ones on that podium. This doesn’t mean that Jay Z is some kind of evil businessman; he really seems to have been acting with the best intentions. But when blackness is understood singularly, like a cloak that veils all other differences, the business that Jay Z was involved in vanishes. This vanishing makes us unable to think critically about Jay Z’s involvement in the Barclays Center without claiming that he has “betrayed” black people, which is a gross oversimplification. The guy clearly loves Brooklyn.

In the end, if the world is indeed “under new management” as Jay Z says on “Open Letter,” I think we need to adjust how we work. If we continue to use the same familiar techniques and routines when the world is changing around us, our ability to solve problems is diminished. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch – race still shapes the world in undeniable ways – but it does mean looking at the complexity of the world and confronting that complexity head-on, not lamely reducing it to just race or just gender or just class or just evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reduction or even having priorities, but there are consequences. If life is hard knock, why pretend that it’s easy?

Bombs Over Boondocks: On Season 4

I’ve been regularly watching the 4th season of the Boondocks and it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. I know that the show has always had problems, but watching the 4th season made me really think further about these problems for a few reasons. First, just before it premiered, it was revealed that series creator Aaron McGruder did not participate in the making of this season. Second, few characters from the previous seasons have returned. Ed Wuncler Sr. Ed Wuncler III, Jazmine, Sarah, Thugnificent and Gin Rummy have been almost completely absent, rarely having any lines and even more rarely appearing on screen. Lastly, the episodes have been strangely focused on the concerns of Robert Freeman, rather than oscillating between the members of the Freeman family.

None of these new developments are particularly unusual in the abstract. Many tv shows have lived on in the absence of their original creators; many shows have abolished characters; and many shows have altered their main character. These things happen. But in the case of the 4th season of The Boondocks, these developments have really amplified two of the show’s more chronic problems: the show’s treatment of women and it’s intelligibility as satire. Keeping in mind that these problems really are chronic – so they can’t be solely scapegoated to McGruder’s absence – I’m going to survey some choice moments from this season and previous seasons, exploring not only how this season has veered off course, but also how the steering wheel was already shaky.

I: New Characters, Old Tactics

The Boondocks notably has no central female characters. That’s just a fact. Secondary characters Sarah, Jazmine and Cynthia, are the show’s only female characters that have speaking roles in 3 or more episodes (out of 53 in total so far).* Beyond those three, guest female characters and unnamed female characters are typically one-dimensional. Ebony Brown from “The Lovely Ebony Brown,” Luna from “Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch” and Deborah LeVil from “The Hunger Strike” are exceptions, but even they aren’t the most flattering examples. Otherwise, the show is unrelentingly troubling when it comes to women characters.

Crystal from “Guess Ho’s Coming to Dinner” is probably the worst example. She is a hoe by design, legitimating the idea that hoes actually exist (they don’t; there simply is no nonjudgmental or empirical way to categorize people by their sex lives) and that there is something wrong with them for following their sexual urges. Of course, the show is satirical, so characterizations are always subordinated to the target of the satire, which was intended to be gold diggers (they even play “Gold Digger” during the episode) in Crystal’s case , but I don’t see any reason why a satirical goal has to be accomplished at the expense of all women or some lame caricature of women. At one point Huey, confidently says that “at least 20% of women are hoes” and he’s not joking. That is some straight up lazy writing. 

Unsurprisingly, this season has also been plagued by lazy writing of women characters, which is somewhat sad since Angela Nissel has written more than half of the episodes ,and there have been more women characters introduced in this season than any other because the show has largely focused on the exploits of Granddad. Two episodes stand out: “Breaking Granddad” and “Early Bird Special.” The former takes a jab at the black hair care industry and the latter aims at the black relationship advice industry. In the real world black women are deeply invested in both of these subjects, but in the episode, they simply appear as punchlines to jokes.

For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Huey develops an explosive chemical compound that he wants to use to commit a murder, which strangely turns out to also cause miraculous hair growth and make hair straight and infinitely malleable. When Granddad finds out, he forces Huey to allow him to sell the dangerous compound to a profiteering hair company called “Right Like White” that is ran by a no-nonsense black woman named Boss Wilona, who, despite being a black woman herself, has no qualms selling a dangerous product to other black women. Wilona’s big moment is when she delivers this spiel justifying her actions: “Explosive? You think them bitches out there care about a little fire? This here will turn your brain green, this stuff has plutonium, this one is acid… just acid. Don’t you get it? These bitches would put napalm on their hair if it would make it straight!”

When I first heard these lines, I laughed because I thought they were the setup for a more nuanced take on why black women would risk their health for certain kinds of hair, but that didn’t happen. This was just a punchline to a very familiar and stale ComicView style observation that masquerades as a joke: black women invest a lot into their hair. Once Wilona and Robert make their agreement, we’re treated to a montage of black women lining up to buy the product and then putting it to use. The montage features outrageous hairstyles and self-deprecating one-off comments from unnamed black women.  I don’t expect satire to do intellectual work for me or for anybody else, but this episode really did nothing more than make fun of black women, effectively calling them stupid for caring about their hair, as if black hair is “just hair.” It’s actually kind of stupefying how diminishing this episode is. We’re living in the age of the Natural Hair Movement, after all.

Boondocks Helicopter Hair Season 4

“Early Bird Special” follows suit, featuring another profiteering black woman named Geraldine who hires Robert as a prostitute specifically for black women who are emotionally needy. In other words, Geraldine is a straight-up pimp. Eric Thurm at A.V. Club noted that Geraldine and Wilona are very similar and he’s quite right. They even have the same voice actor, Jennifer Lewis. Geraldine’s big spiel is also a justification of her participation in an industry: “Women don’t pay for dangle…What you’re doing for our women is bigger than that. You’re boosting their self-esteem, making them feel loved, desirable. [Vanessa] found our ad in the back of that book ‘Think Like a Dude Cause Your Lonely Black Ass Ain’t Never Gonna Get One Anyway.’…You’re making these lonely black women feel loved and that feeling is the most powerful fucking drug in the world.”

Although the episode references Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and the toxic industry it represents, it goes on to focus on a woman, Vanessa, who is so desperate to find love from a man that she sells her house to have Robert be her full-time escort. Because Robert isn’t comfortable with fulfilling Vanessa’s needs in a way that will clearly never fix her issues, she convinces him that they should have an actual romantic relationship, not just a commercial one that is designed to be romantic. He agrees, but the plan is inhibited by Robert’s inability to get out of his escort contract due to Geraldine’s violent tactics. She is a pimp, after all.

When Robert returns home after failed and violent “negotiations,” Vanessa greets him and introduces him to her two unnamed friends, who are literally introduced as “lonely and bitter.” Seriously, these traits are their names. The three women then begin to praise Robert, contrasting him with the trifling men that they’re used to. For a moment, it seems like the episode may be headed in a smart direction; these women are lonely and bitter for a reason, I’d imagine. But nope, when Uncle Ruckus enters with a fawning white woman, Vanessa and her friends feel instantly betrayed, as if the mere presence of a white woman is lethal to a black relationship. They then angrily leave, bitterly condemning black men. 

Again, like the women in “Breaking Granddad,” these women are just punchlines. They are presented as bitter and lonely because that’s just what they are, as if these are innate traits rather than reactions to sordid pasts or a sprawling media landscape that constantly judges black women as failures and then uses that judgment as an opportunity to take those same women’s money. Even the fawning white women is a lame punchline, the “joke” being, “White women and black men sometimes date.” As I said earlier, I don’t expect satire to do my intellectual work for me, but this entire episode works by throwing women under the bus, running them over, then claiming that they were already in the street. This kind of unapologetic plot progression is quite common in The Boondocks catalog and is very important to keep in mind when thinking about what makes the show intelligible as satire.

Boondocks Season 4 White Woman

II: The Boondocks is Satire, Right?

Is The Boondocks a satire or is it just a cartoon about ( or mocking?) black people? I’m not being a contrarian. The show is not always clear on this point. I think that the ambiguity of the show is both a function of satire as a genre and a product of the show’s approach to that genre. In my view, good satire has an intimate relationship with what it targets. After all, if the goal of satire is to shift how that target is perceived, in order to intervene in that perception, one must know how it is currently perceived and why it is perceived that way, then strike at those vulnerabilities, subsequently producing laughter and/or new perspectives. Heck, the comedian in me would argue that laughter itself can be a new perspective. The way The Boondocks approaches satire is very detailed, but frankly I think this detail primarily stems from one point: the sheer particularity of the subject matter.

Alongside the Proud Family, the Cleveland Show, Static Shock, The PJs, Waynehead and Little Bill, The Boondocks is one of the few animated television shows in the past 15 years to be about black people. In that sense, the sheer existence of The Boondocks demonstrates an intimacy with its subject matter. Beyond its ontology, The Boondocks actively focuses on black life through its cast, its plots, its animation, its music and its production, which are all demonstrably immersed in black people’s lives. Even further, The Boondocks often focuses on real-world events and people, demonstrating an interest in black life in particular instances, not just in general. Even among the shows listed at the beginning of this paragraph, this focus is unique.

The liability of this focus is that its intelligibility as satire hinges on previous knowledge of these real-world events and characters. This is the liability of all satire, but for The Boondocks this liability is heightened because it is 1) a cartoon 2) airing on Adult Swim, 3) which is apart of 4) Cartoon Network, a channel that is mostly for kids, and 5) it references and represents black lives, which aren’t really represented in the current media landscape. Given these circumstances, especially the latter, The Boondocks is in a precarious position. In order to depict and discuss black life without alienating black people, the show has to assume that black life is intelligible to the viewer despite the fact that anyone could rightfully stumble upon this cartoon on a cartoon station and think that it’s “just a cartoon.” What I appreciate about the show is that at its best, it overcomes this precarity with style and wit.

“The Invasion of The Katrinians” is probably the best example. Though it’s damn near unimaginable that anyone didn’t know about Katrina, the episode has a brief preface that sets the episode up for even the most uninformed viewer, allowing all of the show’s humor to emanate from that context. In many other cases, the show is not always clearly satirical. For instance, beyond his first appearance, which targeted men’s fragile egos and senseless love of violence, I can’t say that the character Stinkmeaner ever really offered anything other than an excuse for fight scenes.

This season has suffered very heavily from the show’s entrenched precarity and I think this suffering is a direct product of something I’ve already identified: lazy writing. However, while in the past this writing had primarily plagued the community of female characters and sometimes Uncle Ruckus, this season’s lazy writing hasn’t been so discriminating: everybody is affected.

Huey and Riley are the most palpable examples. According to this season’s portrayal, Huey is the voice of reason and Riley is the voice of base desires, effectively making them function as a devil/angel pair (often perched on Robert’s shoulders). To be fair, these portrayals aren’t ostensibly far from how Huey and Riley have always functioned within the series, but in this new season these functions have been notably automatized. In other words, when Huey and Riley speak, they say what they are programmed to say rather than something in response to their situation and their perspective [reword].

For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Boss Wilona’s right-hand man is an immaculately dressed gay man named Hot Chocolate. When Hot Chocolate points a gun at Riley during the episode’s climax , Riley complains, “I’mma get shot by a gay dude! How embarrassing!” Riley’s homophobia is nothing new, but in the past it was always explicitly tied to Riley’s fragile masculinity, which he is constantly asserting in order to remind everybody how allegedly hard he is (or rather how hard he wants to be). In this episode, there is no connection to fragile masculinity. Riley is homophobic because Riley is “supposed” to be homophobic. This is a problem. Once his homophobia is just another character trait, akin to his shoes or baggy pants, it doesn’t really have a satirical edge. It just sounds straight up homophobic.

Huey as a distilled voice of reason has similar problems. In the episode, “Freedomland,” which is the final act of a narrative arc in which the Freemans have actually sold themselves into slavery (this arc is very poorly explored throughout the season, which presented actual slavery as “being broke”), Huey delivers a speech about freedom that was clearly intended to be climactic and powerful. “For the moment, the little guy won. But for how long? How long before those at the top figure out another way how to make a buck off of those at the bottom? Then maybe, just maybe, those at the bottom will realize that some of the people they trust may not have their best interests at heart.”

Freedomland Boondocks Season 4

This is Huey’s speech after a successful slave revolt. A slave revolt! Slavery is the most visceral and searing pain in African-American history, yet Huey, who is supposedly so radical that he is labeled a domestic terrorist, narrates the conclusion to a slave revolt as if he has diligently moved up the chain of command at his local Wal-Mart and finally gotten a refund for his one month-old-yet-faulty new television. Just a few episodes ago (“Breaking Granddad”) he was willing to murder someone to get his freedom back and now he’s satisfied with the destruction of a slavery-themed amusement park? (which was very poorly executed, by the way).

I guess that’s a reasonable level of satisfaction, but when has Huey ever been reasonable? In the first season, he attempted to use an elementary school Christmas play as a vehicle for black power. In the second season, he attempted to destroy a movie reel of “Soul Plane 2″ because he believed that  the movie was oppressive. In the third season,  he was so dissatisfied with the reaction to Obama’s election that he contemplated allying with a known white supremacist. Of course, all of these actions were satirical, so they can’t be taken just at face value, but my point is that the extremism embedded in them has never just been to get a point across. As a character, Huey really is an extremist.

More importantly, beyond Huey, the recurring cast in general is extreme and this extremism is the lifeblood of the show. This season seems to have taken that extremism and mechanized it, reducing the cast in size and in complexity to predictable drones that strike as programmed, in any context, in any story. The result of this approach is a season that frequently lacks fangs and persistently misrecognizes its barks as its bites, its references as its commentaries. In short, this is a season that isn’t sure if it’s doing parody or satire.

III: Conclusion

All in all, when I say that this season has been characterized by lazy writing, what I’m really saying is that the writing has been overconfident. Characters, references, jokes and satirical objectives have all been presented as if they are immediately intelligible, without need for editorial intervention. The Boondocks’ track record with women has always been plagued by this overconfidence, but this season saw that flaw contaminate the series as a whole, tipping the show’s intelligibility firmly into the realm of parody rather than satire. In my view, the treatment of female characters indicates that the show has always sat at this tipping point. By formalizing a plot formula in which someone is always sacrificed for the greater satirical/comical/social goal, The Boondocks set itself up to eventually sacrifice itself. In the absence of its usual extensive cast, the show intensified its interest in the Freeman family, progressively routinizing their traits into odd,automated assemblages that were always familiar and never surprising.

In the end, I don’t think that the course that this season took was inevitable, but I do strongly feel that it was always already possible. Sure, Aaron McGruder probably kept things on course during his tenure, and that should be acknowledged (though we could never know for certain without understanding how exactly animated shows get made in terms of production methods and in terms of internal hierarchies), but the problems that I’ve explored have been in play since the first episode, so his absence doesn’t explain much. Furthermore, things were often kept on course at the expense of women and other groups, so the path this season went down is a clear legacy of previous paths. Never forget.

*Regina King voices Huey and Riley, but I’m talking about characters, not actors.


Building from the updated form of the Bechdel Test that is explained above and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s POC variation of the Bechdel Test, I would like to introduce the Crispus Attucks Test. A movie passes the Crispus Attucks Test if it has a person of color who:

1) Has a name.

2) Doesn’t die first.

3) Has their death mentioned later in the film.

4) Doesn’t die within the first 1/5 of the total running time of the film. (This one is optional)

If you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test, you’ve probably noticed that I have not included the typical requirement that there should be at least two members of the group being discussed. At first glance this is probably blasphemous, but allow me to explain. As I understand it, the ultimate goal of the Bechdel Test is to shed light on the entrenched and problematic practices of the entertainment industry. The test does this by highlighting the presences and absences of women (and now persons of color) in movies and then showing how these presences and absences indicate how the overall story values women. In other words, the Bechdel Test shows who matters to a story and how they matter. Though dying in a film is not precisely the same as being marginalized within it as the sole woman or person of color, or as a woman or POC who only speaks with or about men, I think that focusing on death is definitely in the spirit of the Bechdel Test in terms of showing who matters and how they matter to the overall story.

Death and when it occurs are a particularly meaningful point of insight because a death often makes explicit how relevant (or not) a character is to the overall events of a story. While a late death will often resolve or propel a story and profoundly affect how characters develop, early deaths often just set events in motion, rarely doing much else, especially in terms of character development. In fact, Law and Order has perfected this formula. Every episode of Law and Order begins with a death, and even though that death is central to the events of the story, the person who died is literally never fleshed out. Throughout the episode we will only see this person in a ghastly state of incompleteness at best and complete absence at worst. Yet the story goes on.

I do not intend for the Crispus Attucks Test to be applied broadly, especially to movies that do not have death as part of the story or that contain an entire cast of persons of color. My intention is for the test to be applied to movies in which a death advances the plot (or is at least supposed to), namely action movies, horror movies, thrillers and blockbusters.

Like the Bechdel Test, the Crispus Attucks Test does not necessarily say anything – whether the movie passes or fails – about the aesthetic qualities of a film. Rather, it highlights the social, political and economic circumstances under which films are made (which are certainly related to aesthetics, but not always directly). Particularly, it draws attention to the devaluation of the labor of POC writers, actors, producers and general workers within the film industry and the unrecognition* of POC characters as integral elements to the telling of a story, not mere cannon fodder or plot devices.

There are many movies that I love that fail the Crispus Attucks Test. Right off the bat, I can think of Scream 2, Aliens and X-Men: First Class. I can still appreciate and enjoy these movies despite their shortcomings, but I do recognize that the way that they told their stories did not have come at the expense of persons of color. The events of the stories could have easily happened otherwise and the Crispus Attucks Test is a small way of recognizing and encouraging that change.** That said, as Anita Sarkeesian says in the video, changes to the entertainment industry are ultimately in the hands of creators. All we can do is keep our hands at their necks.

*Unrecognition was coined by Audre Lorde in her open letter to Mary Daly to refer to the experience of being represented in an unfamiliar way by someone who was supposed to be a collaborator. It’s more than misrepresentation. Unrecognition is a feeling of being instrumentalized, of being used toward some end that you oppose. It is a feeling of betrayal, objectification and exploitation.

**The early deaths of Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett can be read as parody, but I’ve never really bought that reading. Who says parody has to be so straightforward? Another way to get the point across without slitting their throats could have been to have one of them fall asleep during the movie and imagine that they were murdered. I’m no screenwriter, but in a movie that is by definition an assemblage of other movies, I’m sure that other options could have been explored.

Homeboy Sandman Is Not My Homeboy

Though his choruses are mediocre at best, Homeboy Sandman is one of the most-talented rappers in hip-hop. I’ve never heard a verse of his that didn’t impress me technically, stylistically or conceptually. Even his videos are generally impressive. That being said, Homeboy Sandman is not my homeboy.

In an op-ed published by Gawker, Homeboy Sandman declared and then defended the notion that black people are cowards. It’s a nonsense argument in principle and even worse in action. Sandman uses his dissatisfaction with the LA Clippers’ response to Donald Sterling’s racism to then accuse an entire populace of cowardice. His accusation does nothing more than reignite old, frustrating, condescending, dehumanizing, ahistorical and unempirical debates about whether black people’s collective condition is attributable to black people ourselves. I’m not sure how anyone who knows anything about American history could make such disgusting claims. I’m especially not sure how any black person who is living through the very consequences of American history could make those claims. But I’m not here to speculate.

I’m here to debate. But I don’t want to debate on Sandman’s terms; they just plain aren’t tenable. “Black people are cowards” is a statement that isn’t even worth laughing at. It’s pure bullshit, like homeopathy or justified rape. I don’t even want to debate with Sandman because his argument has no connection to the real world.

I want to debate with the people who are telling me that Sandman’s op-ed is a “must-read.” Why should I read an article where a black person gives legitimacy to the idea that black people should not be welcome at certain places? Why should I read an article where a black person uses “coon” as a way of addressing me? Why should I read an article that says, “Our enemy isn’t white people” as if that’s breaking news? Why should I read an article where a musician presents an entire genre as corrupted and inferior just because it doesn’t always uphold his particular values?

The only answer I can come up with for all these questions is that I should read this article if I want to be homeboys with someone who is unable to think complexly about the issues facing black America. I agree that the LA Clippers’ protest was kind of lame, but calling all black people cowards is even lamer. Anyone can blame rap music, basketball players, TV shows, movies and black people. Hell, those 5 targets of blame might as well be the starting lineup for people who want to play the game  “Let’s Fix Black America’s Problems.”

It takes someone with a creative mind to tackle the realities of black America with actual nuance, not Gawker-style, reductive talking points. Before today, I would have thought that Homeboy Sandman was in possession of such a creative mind, but it turns out that I was wrong.

But I don’t care about Homeboy Sandman. I care about black people telling other black people that our destinies are in our own hands as if there aren’t other hands tightly gripped around our throats. I understand the inclination to ask if black people are self-oppressing – it’s always a question worth asking for any group. But answering that question involves confronting the complexity of oppression and resistance to it, and thinking deeply about history and possibility, not responding to that complexity with prepackaged solutions that have never worked.

I’m so tired of black people comparing the present moment to the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Unless you live in Mississippi, those eras are absolutely incommensurate. Boycotts don’t solve problems in 2014. They barely solved them in 1956. This cannot be emphasized enough. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a unique historical event that was enabled by demographic concentration, community autonomy , social infrastructure in the form of robust churches (and tithing members!) and support from communities outside of Montgomery. The fact that it succeeded is a true marvel and one that I am immensely grateful for, but it wasn’t just a matter of everyone holding hands and being strong. Black people have always been strong, but strength has never been enough. That boycott succeeded because strength was coupled with power and imagination. Circulating an article that actively drains black people of all three is absolutely a step in the wrong direction.