Category Archives: What’s Hot

4 Reasons to Love 4:44

These have been hard years for black people.  Every woke person I know is spiritually exhausted from the sheer effort of bearing not the burdens of our ancestors but the current load of racism that confronts us every. day. in America.  Trump and his Whisis army of lone shooters perpetrating a race war, killer cops who walk and the pain of daily witnessing our fellow citizens, friends, or even lovers wonder why we’re so upset.  I really wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to lay down and eat ice cream forever but fuck it if even lactose is out to get black people.  Instead, black artists like a black ocean, leaping and wide are rising to the times and making art that matters.

Jay-Z.  If you thought I was on some ballet when I said art, let me back up.  Hip Hop is arguably the most critiqued genre of music, reviled for its misogyny, hyperconsumerism, and violence.  Even the album I am about to praise will be torn down in the coming days beat by problematic beat to convict Jay-Z and his dirty, dirty hip hop of all the bad things.  Is he threatening me/ all white people/cops? What will the children think? What are they selling us? What the hell is Tidal? I get it.  It’s probably problematic.  But in a world where Trump is the President, problematic is standard.  Too often the critique of hip hop stops there without critics actually listening to the album.  If you are this kind of critic, I have news for you: beyond the lean-bop candy-pop mumble rap, art is being produced to challenge old ideas of misogyny, consumerism, internalized racism and homophobia that were mainstream hip hop’s bread and butter. Let’s look at Jay-Z’s 4:44 for proof.

4:44

The title track of the album is an apologia to Queen Bey, Blue and the twins, Solange, women and basically the earth for all Jay-Z’s shitty behavior.  Don’t expect hearts and violins, promises of walks on the beach or plaintive wailing.  The track sounds like what it is: the haunted 4 a.m. thoughts of a man who has deeply hurt those he loves, honest and raw. Now I’m not advocating that men get a cookie for correctly identifying an emotion, but it matters that Jay-Z provides a blueprint for taking responsibility.  Just as rap has been roundly critiqued for saying terrible things about women, and rightly so, there is increasingly a trend of rap’s biggest stars talking frankly about the hard work of relationships.  Jay Z’s apology in 4:44, Kendrick’s These Walls or J Cole’s Folding Clothes all put words to the complex experience of navigating real life relationships.  I don’t know another place in our pop culture where men are engaging frankly in real talk about the mechanics of making egalitarian relationships work.  As rappers themselves age and engage in family life, they could choose to still play gangster to the world.  But Jay-Z’s vulnerability signals to other men that there is life beyond hypermasculinity: that being open and vulnerable is necessary for personal transformation and growth, that successful men do desire and choose women who will require them to be accountable and respectful, that when wrong, one can and should take full responsibility.  Songs give voice to things that are hard to say. Need to say sorry?  Let Jay help.

Story of OJ

My favorite on the album at this early date: the Story of OJ tackles racism and its roots in capitalism and slavery.    On the chorus Jay-Z Breaks down the parsing of the black experience: Even super-rich Jay is stuck in the loony tunes land of racism which he reconstructs for the video from scenes recreating racist cartoons like Scrub Me Mama and What Up Doc.  Set to a beat sampling Nina Simone’s mournful Four Women Jay-Z describes a pathway to liberation through generational wealth and cooperative economics.

In the absence of the dismantling of the system of capitalism, power without wealth remains a myth. Black people can’t be satisfied with the trappings of wealth like bottle service and cars.  “You know what’s more important than buying bottles in the strip club? Credit.” Jay-Z advocates real wealth–real estate, and art.  It may seem incongruous to tell blacks no matter how rich they are they’re still marginalized and to tell blacks to get money–but in fact connecting these ideas is important.  Jay-Z reminds us that individual wealth, especially when poured into consumer goods is death while, investing in generational wealth and purchasing property is about power.  He reminds us that immigrant groups before us used this same pathway–think the Kennedy’s who rum running money soon enough had them running the country.  In a few bars Jay -Z flips our understanding of race and money to focus on neither money nor race but power–the key to ending oppression.  And the video deserves its own frame by frame analysis–soon come.

Smile

As I mentioned in the opening, these years are full of pain for black people.  One of the most powerful skills black people are demonstrating in the face of unrelenting oppression is the ability to still find joy.  Resilience. Strength that comes from the soul.  The kind of happiness called #blackgirlmagic or #blackboyjoy which is created in response to cultural trauma. The rose that grows from concrete.  Hip Hop in the gangster rap days was smile free: every issue of XXL was full of angry faces, sadness and pain was the mask the world put on black men, and they embraced that mask.  Jay-Z reminds us to smile at the transformation wrought by our challenges.  He’s not alone: other artists are also reminding us to embrace joy in these dark time: Lil Yachty’s I Spy, Buddy’s Shine and Pharell’s Happy are odes to joy.  Far from being disposable pop, these songs are reminders that black people deserve joy.  They are songs that help us summon joy from this painful chaotic world.

Not insignificantly, the song talks about Jay-Z’s mother struggle living in the closet for most of her life.  One of the strongest criticisms of rap is the rampant homophobia.  Like sports, it was considered taboo for rappers to embrace people of different sexual orientations.  You may say that rap is late to the game recognizing the importance of gay rights, but remember that Michael Sam only played one season before they Colin Kapernicked him.  Male discourse in our culture around gay people still remains highly problematic but Jay-Z embrace of his mother signals a long overdue change. Jay-Z’s mother Gloria gets to tell us herself the pain of living in the shadows.  “Love who you love because life isn’t guaranteed”.  Her story reminds us that smiles hide a multitude of pain, but they are more than masks, they are aspirations.

Legacy

The final song of the album starts with the voice of little Blue Carter: “Daddy, what’s a will?”  Bookending the album with songs that focus on generational wealth provide an important reminder to listeners of the role that cooperative family economics play in supporting the culture.  Yeah, I get it, Jay-Z is so rich he can afford to invest and most people in America are broke, but decades of rap songs have young boys buying Bugatti’s and bottle service so are bonds really out of the question?   Jay-Z’s Legacy gives listeners something else to work hard for–foundations and inheritance.  He muses that the stacks of cash he has acquired be used for things to uplift the race

TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSÉ, I’d like to see
A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we
We gon’ start a society within a society

The idea of using economics to combat marginalization is not new–in fact, MLK’s war on poverty was so threatening to established power that he was killed (cough, cough, by the government).  What Jay-Z does on Legacy is use his power both as an artist and as a philanthropist to create an aspirational pathway.  While we’re fighting for the rights of black people in the voting booth, or the cultural sovereignty of black people in debates over cultural appropriation, Jay Z reminds us of the power of generational wealth as a path to liberation from centuries of oppression.  You may not be able to buy a place in Dumbo, but even you can have a will, buy some bonds, and think about what you are leaving behind for your family and your people.  That’s radical.

Nobody ever told Picasso stop painting nudes because the kids might see.  No one stopped Pollack because his work was too aggressive.  Van Gough cut off his own fucking ear and his paintings are worth millions. So forget your critique of Hip Hop and appreciate Jay’s latest for what it is:  4:44 is art.  Art provokes, it makes us question, it reflects both our darkness and our shallowness. Like Picasso or Van Gough, Jay- is a grown man, not an empty headed thug or a disposable fuck boy addicted to lean.  His experience, his poetry, and his flow combine to create a piece of art that we can unpack, reflect and meditate on, art that will provoke us to keep on in the face of America’s unrelenting hate of black people.  He reminds us that raw vulnerability is worth something more that the mask of hypermasculinity. He reminds us to build and to grind, to love and to let others love, to smile.  He reminds us to rise.

 

 

Shea Moisture: They’re Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes, Pt 2

Shea Moisture put out an ad this week called Hair Hate and then sat back and enjoyed their own Pepsi moment.  Here’s the ad below:

For a company that is built by, for and literally on black women, expanding their customer base by equating the hair challenges of naturals with the bad hair days of gingers and blondes wasn’t an overreach, it was a betrayal.   Shortly after Shea Moisture’s dragging began, so did the comparisons to the Pepsi ad.  Both seemed tone deaf, trivializing important aspect of black culture to sell product.  But I said it about Pepsi and now I’ll say it about Shea Moisture–they’re not tone deaf, they’re assholes; they’re not silly, they’re sell outs.

Shea Moisture’s built its brand on black women and their hard earned cash.  Even the label tells the homey story of the brand’s founder’s grandmother Sofi Tucker selling product in Sierra Leon.  Last year the brand shouted its allegiance to ethnic hair by proudly proclaiming it was going to desegregate the beauty isle–the implication being that Shea Moisture’s move to shelf space in the non-ethinc hair care section (called the regular hair section by most people) was about making hair care inclusive of black beauty, not leaving it behind. This ad clearly positions Shea Moisture as here for black women. Turns outs they were just getting ready to sell out in the rush to gentrify haircare and expand their own customer base and bottom line.

This is not a tone deaf company.  This is a company that has carefully–and with great success–made it big by catering to black women.  Looking back, it seems the brand, like an NBA player, wasn’t trying to rock with the sisters once it started making it big time (please don’t write me letters, my woke NBA brothers).  The move to the regular hair isle is now followed up with an ad that is shifting the brand to one that serves “regular hair”  The new ad is the shampoo equivalent of all hair matters, compete with Becky with the good hair. (Did they not listen to Lemonade?!)

Hair is an important marker of identity, especially for women, and especially for black women.  The natural hair movement has grown along with the movement for black lives.  Like the rallying cry, ‘Black is Beautiful’ in the 70’s, the natural hair movement cannot be separated from the politics and social change of our time.

Shea Moisture seeks to equate the hate of different kinds of hair without acknowledging that some hair hate comes with real consequences.  The hate towards natural hair in schools, business, and social situations is about more than hair, it is reinforcing white supremacy.  To act like hair hate is about hair and not hate means that Shea Moisture just doesn’t understand us anymore.  Maybe they never really loved us, they just loved our hair style.  Something tells me they’re about to find out if Becky with the good hair can love them like we did.

Gentrifying Shampoo

This week Pantene rolled out a beautiful ode to black women to artfully showcase what they present here as a line of products for natural hair.

So this is the part of the post where you think I’m going to praise Pantene for dope visuals, a rainbow of brown skinned lovelies, and a little finger-snapping slam-lite–wrong.  Sure this video brings the love of natural hair to the mainstream, making visible the black women who have been so ignored by the hair care industry.  Sure the video chants a little manifesto singing the praises of black beauty and power.  But don’t sleep, Pantene didn’t wake up one day with visions of Angela Davis for the masses.  Pantene is just gentrifying the natural hair product neighborhood and throwing some shade in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come (And Take It From You)

Natural hair care products are a $946 million dollar industry, a sector of hair care that has seen explosive growth over the last few years.  Long before Pantene Gold started growing dreads, hair care for natural hair was nowhere to be seen on the mainstream scene.   Even the brands that did cater to unprocessed hair were few and far between.  As the natural hair movement grew, there were attempts to grab a share of the market with products like an early attempt for women of color called Pantene Naturals.  The problem was that these products were more about marketing, with formulations that were not markedly different from the rest of the brand’s lines.  The product packaging targets women of color but sulfates and dyes destroy their hair if they use it. Now that the natural hair care market can’t be ignored, Pantene is back for another slice of the African (hair)pie.

 

Meanwhile natural brands like Miss Jessie’s, Shea Mountain, As I Am and others did the real work finding ways to truly care for black hair–working directly with the women who used their product, learning from the ancestors secret recipes, and redesigning the natural hair care regimen with modern formulations that actually work for a diverse group of often ignored customers.  These companies, many owned by women of color, did the hard work to build a cottage industry into the natural hair juggernaut that it is today.

And then here comes Pantene.  Like a Starbucks in Brooklyn.  Sure, it seems nice at first until you can’t afford to live in your own apartment. Or until you can’t, as a small business owner, compete with a huge corporate entity like Pantene and you get knocked out of your own market. The natural hair movement is democratic with hundreds of bloggers, businesswomen and home product developers following in the steps of Madame CJ Walker, but it looks like this nation is about to be attacked by shamPutin Pantene.

By the Way, We Still Think Your Hair Sucks

I couldn’t help but notice when I looked at the actual product that is celebrating black women that nowhere on the product packaging does Pantene Gold say that is its designed for natural hair, or black hair beautiful in that many ways the commercial described it.  The line is aimed at “dry, damaged hair”.  That’s right, you snapping-your-fingers-as-you-snap-up-Pantene-queens–they just called your crown dry and damaged.  All that lovely poetry isn’t on the package.  Instead, just a reminder that the world still sees your hair as fundamentally flawed.

As_I_Am_Coconut_Cleansing_Conditioner_-_16_oz___TargetOther natural haircare lines use language that celebrates natural hair on the product line itself, not just pays lip service to it in ads.  Without the ad above, you wouldn’t know that Pantene was even trying to connect with the black community–and frankly, that wouldn’t be anything new.   I’m going to skip the hype on this one and keep supporting the business that cared about me and my hair, not just my wallet.

 

Get Out: What it Really is (and Why it Really Matters)

(warning: major spoilers) Get Out, Jordan Peele’s hugely successful directorial debut is killing it–box office bonanza, critics’ favorite, thinkpiece heaven and somewhere, I promise you, some doctoral student is burning out an iMac writing a thesis about it. Main character Chris, ensnared in a modern day coon hunt with a twist, has stumbled on a mini market of black zombies.  That’s right. This is a zombie movie.

Get Out trades on all sorts of movie tropes and motifs, as good filmmaking does, connecting us not only to a new story but also a new way of looking at ourselves.  At its heart lies a surprisingly familiar undead corpse–the zombie.  While the word zombie may give you visions of decomposing walkers or World War Z‘s running meat bags, Get Out returns us to the original body of the zombie story. The keys to the zombie story are mind control and bodily manipulation, a focus not on head shots but on enslavement. What’s more, looking at Get Out as a zombie movie helps audiences regain an empathetic lens to see black pain.

Like all good monsters, zombies, and zombie stories, are outsiders. They come from somewhere else–in the case of the zombie story, Africa.  The origins of the idea of the zombie come from West and Central Africa.  In West African spirituality, Orishas may ride devotees: possession not like the exorcist but more like catching the holy spirit, so one individual controlling another has spiritual precident. Possesion and control are also potential outcomes of rituals and spells. Powerful spiritual practitioners may control both living creatures and also unliving entities using the practices that are a small part of the religion  of Vodun.  The idea of using spiritual methods to control others’ bodies manifests in a complex and quite different way in Benin than the brain eaters clogging up the streets of Atlanta in the Walking Dead.  Of course, the original story was dragged onto ships and enslaved along with millions of Africans, landing in Haiti. Like the Africans themselves, the story of what a zombie was and how we should feel about it was transformed under the crushing pressure of whiteness.

Imagine you are newly enslaved, shocked by the brutal middle passage and blistering in the sun of the new world being worked to death to grow sugar for the tables of the European elite.  Thes people are going to beat you to work until you die as you have seen happen to so many around you .  You are exhausted, malnourished, tortured, traumatized and caught between fighting to live and wanting to die.  But you cannot die. Your body now belongs to the master, and death seems to be exclusivley controlled by the evil who weild power. It’s not a far leap to invoke the story of possession from home to create the Haitian zombie: this is no brain craving corpse, but a sentient being, enslaved and brutalized that needs to be freed, not stabbed in the head.

Enter Clarvius Narcissus.  Poor Clarvius was just minding his own business when he was turned into a zombie using a powder of plant-based toxins and made to work on a sugar plantation for decades before eventually getting away and returning home, ragged and brain damaged but still Clarvius.  His was not the only documented case of real life zombies, and there was even some evidence of a market for people drugged into compliance who could be forced to work for free. Again, the three keys are mind control, bodily manipulation and enslavement–in both real and imagined places.

Shifting to America’s silver screen, we find at first that the origins persist.  White Zombie, a Bela Lugosi classic horror tale features a sugar plantation of enslaved blacks–and one white woman who of course does not belong there and must be saved.  Even George A Romero, the father to the modern American zombie craze originally featured a black lead in Night of the Living Dead, maintaining the black gaze–the story was his.

The scary thing in these kinds of zombie movies was that it could happen to you. The empathy in the story lay not with the person who enslaved the zombie, or even those that may fear the zombie.  The empathy in zombie stories is supposed to lay with the zombie. The enslaved Africans were the victim, not the monster, The trafficked laborers, like Clarvius, were the victim.  Zombie movies were about seeing and sharing black pain. Until the Walking Dead.

The modern obsession with zombies in this century started with the cultural explosion that is the Walking Dead.   The show is excellent has been excellent, and I count myself a fan. But unlike the zombie story which asks us to throw our lot in with the oppressed, The Walking Dead returns white people, free people and zombie haters to the center of the story.  Rick, our flawed hero, reminds everyone that they need to stick together–so nice.  But early seasons of the show find him repeatedly refusing to entertain any lasting interest in curing the walkers or even caring about them.  Zombie myth reformed.

Get Out, though, reclaims the zombie genre.  I know, I know- you probably didn’t think it was a zombie movie when you saw it.  No wandering corpses, no hoards chasing down brains.  But in the sweet sunshine of the Armitage plantation, the whites are commodifying black bodies, enslaving them using neurological means–toxic powders replaced with a scalpel.  Catherine sends Chris to the Sunken Place, and like poor Narcissus, he is still conscious, but cannot overcome the spell he is under to take agency and get free.  We see those that steal the brains are the real villains– different than Georgina, Andrew or Walter: the victims, their bodies ground up in a system that wants only their skills and not their souls. Mind control, bodily manipulation, enslavement to the extreme: zombies.

Understanding the creatures that we have been taught to fear is an important function of monster movies, especially when they are monster mash ups.  Anne Rice and True Blood’s vampires, Penny Dreadfuls Frankenstein’s monster, even Twilight’s teams give us alternative readings of monster life, helping us to care about creatures living at the edges, to see that those that are hurt and broken are still deserving of love, perhaps even moreso.  Returning the zombie to its rightful place as sympathetic victim, and reconnecting the zombie with its critique of whiteness makes Get Out not just a good movie, but an important movie.  Diversifying Hollywood has to include pushing and challenging narratives to help us see what is too often rendered invisible.

Eyes play a major role in the film, from the key shot of Chris’s face seen in the movie to Chris’s photography to the planned transplant to “get your eyes, man”.  The film asks us to see out through the eyes of the ensnared, to feel the terror of being trapped.  Where the Walking Dead teaches us a thousand ways to kill a zombie,  Get Out brings us to the sunken place where the zombies get stuck.  We see Chris stabbed with the pain of his lost mother, falling, silenced.  This is black pain separated from any of the usual stereotypical symbols of black pain like a crack pipe, gang flag or welfare check.  This is a place where Chis suffers with his humanity intact, wanting not brains (he has plenty of those) but freedom.

What is it to fall into a zombie state and witness your own brutalization?  Like having them love your body, but not you. Like watching others being rewarded for what you are penalized for. Like working yourself to death for minimum wage while being blocked from having any of the accouterments of your own labor and being blamed for wanting Jordans. Like having to choose when to speak up because you are just. so. fucking. tired. Like police videos. Like when there are so many police videos that you stop seeing them. Like protesters being pepper sprayed. Like watching the Clan take the White House.

Get Out makes black pain, as conceived of and acted by black people, visible.  Far from the sunken place, the film gives voice here in the real world to the complex nuanced nature of racism in2017.  It gives viewers of every race a story that requires them to empathize with black pain–which is too often abstracted to sell records, clothes or policies.  The vast majority of movies and TV shows frame blackness as a problem to be quashed by white supremacy.  The few films that cast blacks as innocent victims frequently require that whites still be the heroes. This film gives us neither slaves nor gangbangers and in their absence, we get a lens into a more authentic, relatable and human understanding of race and racism.  If we are ever to evolve past systems of privilege we must first make them visible.

In the end, Chirs’s woke friend Rod is the only hero that can save him, and he’s got plenty of lessons for us to remember. If you wait on the state to save you, you’re in trouble but when the ensnared work together, they can get free.   Rod’s concerns at first seem overblown, but he trusted his own understanding of racism even when others denied it. You’ve got to refuse to ignore evidence that supports what you know to be true.  Rod gave a shit, and not just because he was dogsitting.  Commitment to your brothers and sisters is key.   We too, have to keep looking.  It’s too easy to hear the clink of white supremacy and feel ourselves falling into the sunken place. Stay woke.

 

 

New Times Call for New Stereotypes

In case you haven’t noticed, black people are really slaying these days.  From music to art to literature knowledge and activism and of course fashion.  There’s even new language to describe the fabulosity of black people: lit, melanin poppin’ and now, TNS.

TNS045

TNS stand for the new stereotype, and it is an intentional move by artists to create new ways of seeing– and therefore thinking–about black people.  It all started with this photo shoot by artist Marqulle Turner showing black men far from the brutes who populate the evening newsreel.  These black men are diverse, sophisticated, cosmopolitan and fresh.

Marqulle Turner
Marqulle Turner

Not to be left behind these womyn showed how to get into formation.

DSC_9894
photos from MArqulleturner.com/tns

DSC_9930

TNS seeks to challenge and provide an alternative to the stereotypes of black people that we look at all the time here at smntks.  TNS reminds me a bit of the Sapeurs, the elegantly dressed members of this Congolese fashion club.

67753_sapeur_img

Guinness: Sapeurs in their finery walk among the cattle

Stereotypes are formed in the machine of culture, rarely owned by one person, so can you create a new one on your own? My answer would typically be a no, but these images of TNS come at a time when they are reinforced by amazing images of blacks as thoughtful, creative complex and conscious, from the Sapeurs, to Lemonade to black twitter.  Taken together there is a widespread pattern of a new image of blacks in our culture.

photo by Washington Ave Styles,  www.washingtonavestyles.etsy.com
photo by Washington Ave Styles, http://www.washingtonavestyles.etsy.com

So get your crew, get your melanin poppin’ and add your images to the new stereotype.

Sapeur+Congo++kid+chair

Happy International Women’s Day B’s and S’s!

Today is International women’s Day, nestled snuggly inside Women’s history month. We could point out–similar to black history month–that women make up roughly 50% of humanity but all we get is one lousy month, but hey, we try to keep it positive at smntks. Instead, we’ll take a moment to celebrate some of the wins for women.  Three cheers!

Our ranks of sisterhood have expanded beyond the binary-based boundaries previously known as womanhood. As our culture becomes more enlightened about the broad spectrum of gender we get more broads in our spectrum: we move past times when trans people were thought of as other and become instead sister (and brother).  No justice can be won till we win it for everyone so standing in solidarity with all our sisters makes us stronger.

 I can safely predict that we are gearing up for our first female President of the United States.  I’m confident that if I’m wrong, and Trump is elected president we will all surely be destroyed, so you won’t be fact checking smntks–either way I win.  We know from 8 years of an Obama administration that electing someone from a previously “unelectable” group certainly doesn’t end discrimination of all the people in that group.  It’s easy to argue that racism in America has gotten noticeably worse in the last 8 years under our first black president.  It won’t be different with our first female president. To quote Douglas, there can be no progress without struggle, so electing a female president shatters a boundary we’ll need to cross on our way to a gender neutral culture.

Speaking of broader spectrums of broads how about broader broads’ bods. This year we have seen a host of  curvy beauties in places typically reserved for a more narrow body type.  From the Victoria secret runway to the pages of Sports Illustrated, a rounder feminine body made it into the rotation of typical male fantasy fare.  While this win lands squarely in the column of the objectification of the female form, we’re still going to chalk it up her as a victory for increasing acceptance of all kinds of sisters. Besides the broader spectrum of beauty was also featured in everything from fashion to fame.

With all these wins to celebrate, where’s the work going forward?  Everywhere–you’ll remember that even our wins come with their own losses.  The glass ceiling may be shattered for Hilary but remains stubbornly intact for many women, not to mention that legions of women around the world struggle at the edges of or in extreme poverty.

Malala Yousafzai has done amazing things to call for the education of all girls across the world.  Even with the solid strategies, she has provided for world leaders, her vision remains a work in progress.  Girls around the world are kept from getting the  education they for a variety of reasons  from economic to religious to cultural.  In the US, girls do not face legal barriers to school, but with the US ranking 39th in education overall, making America great is going to take a substantial improvement in education.

Even with all the strides for equity and individual choice, women still walk a razor line between saint and sinner in order to avoid social judgement.  Women have won the right to abortion, sex outside of marriage and the right to choose not to have children but struggle to exercise these right without being shamed.  Slut shaming, attacking abortion patients and poo-pooing women’s personal life choices is still very 2016.  In this video released by Anna Wise of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp  Butterfly fame, she sings sweetly about the not so sweet double bind of the modern woman.

If you’ve ever been called a bitch or a slut, count yourself among the massive number of women stigmatized for nothing less that their own agency and freedom.  It’s hard to walk the thin line drawn for women in our culture, but I have just the fabulous strut for this.  Raise your glass for women today and take your victory stroll–broad horizons are ahead.

[header illustration by Lauren Campbell]

 

Formation: For Nation, For Self

This weekend in an increasingly unsurprising surprise-move, Beyonce dropped a surprise single, “Formation” which was surprisingly woke and, unsurprisingly, Black twitter’s collective head exploded.  The video is a beautifully unapologetic apologia of black feminism, full of the trappings of contemporary blackness.  And it is dope.

The video is full enough of symbols to bang out a media criticism master’s thesis, but you don’t have all night and I’m not paying tuition so I’ll try to hit the highlights.

formation cop car

The video starts out with Beyonce perched atop a New Orleans police car in a flooded out Nola neighborhood–throughout the song she references her family pedigree so often a video viewer might be forgiven for thinking that she is claiming Nola as her own.  A few more establishing shots firmly establish that you are in the world of post Katrina New Orleans–and not the one where people celebrated the rebuilding of the city on the recent 10-year anniversary of the storm but the real New Orleans  where both the storm and the regentrified rebuilding continue to slay local residents.

The video pays homage to today’s black radical feminists: born in the wake of a storm, splattered with the blood shaken from cops hands, awake, agitating, unafraid.  Unlike Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood fantasy of women who slay, Beyonce shows us how real women slay in a world realer than anyone should want.  She shows us sisters with real black bodies moving with power and agency.  She shows us flashes of black culture unrecognizable to middle america–not the smiling coontastic network black, or the tear gassed protesters–but a black that exists where white America is not.  She showcases a range of black beauty that is existing not in opposition or response to, but out beyond the ideal of white beauty.  The press, the illuminuts, the haters, the cops all get zero fucks from the queen.

bey zero fuks

In the midst of times full of racial tension music has been both call to arms and therapist couch.  Questlove’s call to artists to respond to the political realities of black America have seen a Wu-Tang-crew-sized response with artists from Talib Kweli and Killer Mike, to J. Cole and, of course Kendrick Lamar all providing soundtrack to the revolution.  With so many women at the center of the movement for black lives, it seems only fitting that the ladies get their own black lives banger, special for the sisters.

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Not only did Beyonce make this banging song, and this blazing video, but she also marched out onto the field during the Superbowl halftime show with a team of black dancers complete with raised gloved fists and afros tucked into beret a la black panthers.  Yup, sandwiched in between Coldplay and Bruno Mars was a little slice of go-ahead-and-lose-your-mind-white-supremacists. Fox news dragged Rudy Giuliani out storage so he could yell about inciting cop-hate, despite the fact that Beyonce didn’t once reference cop hating–or 9/11, so this is really none of Giuliani’s business.

Beyonce has not typically been one to tread a political path in her music, but these times are making us all more woke than ever.  She should be applauded for using her significant celebrity to highlight black women, especially in such a powerful and authentic way. As a mother to a beautiful baby-afro-wearing Blue, who does her own slaying in the video, Beyonce’s evolving black feminism is powerful modeling–of the cultural sense–for women both inside and outside of the black community.

The video to the song is rich with complex and layered symbolism.  We see Beyonce in places all cut from the new southern gothic–row houses and interiors cramped with golden southern sunlight and old bookcases, a porch fit for Madame Levaux’s coven of witches in New Orleans. Natural hair, and white lace, Gucci body suits and second line–Beyonce’s evocative imagery represents America’s troubled waters as a proving ground for black girl magic where she is high priestess here to share with you her prodigious power to make America love black women.  Like the culture of New Orleans itself, the story of black America she shows us is a layered petticoat of culture and of history.

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So right about now, you should be feeling pretty good.  Maybe ready to buy the song–but you’ll need to download Tidal because the song is only available via Bey boo’s music streaming service, which last we heard was costing the couple money.  But it’s a great song!  Maybe you’re ready to go see the Queen herself.  Lucky for you, she-surprise!-announced a 40-city Formation stadium tour. Okay, no Tidal, no tickets, maybe just a little merch!  We got that too:

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At Shop.Beyonce you can cop any of the latest must have accessories to the struggle–perhaps a bag that lets others know hot sauce is inside-cute!-or would you prefer a phone case that says that you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.  You can even get a sweat shirt that warns you will Twirl on Haters (wonder how long before Kenya Moore want her piece of the honeypie).  Hey, what if you want to be Bey? You can even go to Vogue for a lookbook of Beyonce’s Formation styles.

It all starts to seem like an awful lot of commodification for a protest song.  I mean no one’s rocking a Kendrick Lamar Aight trucker hat at martini-brunch. Is this video an authentic expression of Blackness or a carefully crafted product that commodifies the very images of resistance to sell back to the people its meant to uplift?

Last year, Beyonce and her Boo planned a summer tour together–the On the Run tour.  The tour materials, complete with Bey in a Vogue-ish ski mask harken back to the old Bonnie and Clyde that had worked so well for the pair in the past.  This time, tickets were a tough sell.  In the time of Black Lives Matter, thuggin’ it out in between parties at the Met didn’t seem to get the same street cred that it used to.  Nor could she go back in time to the Mrs. Carter tour, drenched in Eurocentric finery, and expect the very woke sisters of today to spend their hard earned cash on $100.00 tickets.  Embracing the political issues her young fan base faces worked well for her on songs like Pretty, so sprinkling some #blackgirlmagic on her new work was no risk.

If the song pays homage to Beys own blackness and love affair with her people, why not use the more poignant imagery on the merchadise?  Instead of having more realty tv twirlers, why not have any one of a number of powerful images from the video the shirts?  Black hat middle finger up?  First raised (in aGucci dress) on a cop car? Instead, the Formation money shot if you will is of her hanging out of a car window.  It seems to beg a who did it better between her and Kendrick Lamar–and the joker.

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Berets, afros, gothic, Nola, second line, cop cars, graffiti, flood, black hoodies, hot sauce, big frieda, ghanian chiefs, hot pants, police lines, black boys, hair shops, parasols–it starts to feel a bit like Bey collected everything running through the dreams and nightmares of black women and arranged it–artfully, elegantly–to conjure a sisterhood…and to sell sweatshirts.  When she calls on us to fight, I’m not sure we agree on the end game.  I think the best revenge would be justice, or maybe a culture shift, even a hint of equity but all she wants to slay for is paper.  In fact, she strenuously defends her right to operate as a capitalist in free market economy:  you can do that, but I though we were on some black power shit?

And before you tell me what they donate, know that Beyonce has a reported net worth of $250 million dollars.  Peeling off bail money is laudable, but not considered to put them up among the ranks of active black philanthropists.  It is good to see the couple helping out more after the long standing beef with Harry Belafonte ended just this past fall.  The beef started when Belafonte called out Jay Z for his lack of activism.  Jay Z’s recent pledge of $1.5 million from Tidal is a step in the right direction, but again, not enough to make them stand out in a field of philanthropists with smaller net worths.

About this time in my love affair with this song, I start to feel little over-committed. Oaky, so it wasn’t really this oh-hey-look-a-song-I-made-! since the world of Formation is way to formed from song to video and tour and live performance and even merch. The song-as-product takes lots of planning, and this one seems like it was carefully planned to push the very buyable world of Formation. It makes me wonder if the perfectly timed Superbowl controversy was about black bodies or green backs. Nothing makes teens loves something more that Fox declaring it demonic.

Is it possible for something to be both amazing and problematic? Yeah, symbolic constructions are often like that.  Best believe this song and its video have earned the title instant classic.  But the hyper commodification of black power imagery is selling a lot of product–something we are right to be watchful of.  In these times we have little more than our own sense of self–we’ve got to guard that–even against Mr. and Mrs. Carter.

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But its not too late, Bey, to be that black Bill Gates in the making–remember he quit the business to devote himself fully to charitable work and social change.  Think of how amazing you’ll look slaying systemic racism in that Gucci.  We’re here waiting for you, in formation.

 

 

2016 Terror Attack!!

Someone forget to rest the chill button for 2016.  Just few days into the new year we have a terrorist attack right here in America, and what’s worse, there seems to be some sort of news blackout going on. What’s the haps?!

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is that….?

Here’s the scoop:

On Saturday afternoon about 300 Muslims gathered to protest government abuse.  After a peaceful march, a splinter group of jihadists–some known to police and the FBI for previous radical activities–broke off to head to a federal airport.  They occupied a local federal building-an empty airport terminal-and reports of 15-150 people with an unknown quantity of guns have said thy are now prepared to hold the airport hostage for “years.” One of the leaders involved told a reporter they are willing to “kill and be killed” in the name of Allah.

Wait, no that’s all wrong. There is no armed muslim extremist group holding federal land.  Besides, if there was, would Fox news be referring to them as Patriots? Hell no.

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hold on a sec.

On Saturday afternoon about 300 Black Lives matter protesters gathered to protest police brutality.  After a peaceful march, a splinter group of BLM leaders–some known to police and the FBI for previous standoff in Baltimore–broke off to head to a federal courthouse closed for the holidays.  They occupied a local federal building-the courthouse-and reports of 15-150 people with an unknown quantity of guns have said thy are now prepared to the courthouse  for “years.” One of the leaders involved  told a reporter they are willing to “kill and be killed.”

Oh, wait, totally wrong again.  Despite many, many protests in support of the movement for Black Lives, no part of the movement has staged an armed takeover.  No leader of the movement has advocated kill or be killed. Fox called them Anarchists.  I call them citizens acting within their constitutional right.

Here’s the real story:

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yeah, this ones real

On Saturday afternoon about 300 people gathered to protest government abuse.  After a peaceful march, a splinter group of militia leaders–some known to police and the FBI for a previous standoff on the Clive Bundy ranch–broke off to head to a federal wildlife preserve.  They occupied a local federal building on the preserve and reports of 15-150 people with an unknown quantity of guns have said thy are now prepared to occupy the preserve for “years.” One of the leaders involved, Ryan Bundy, told a reporter they are willing to “kill and be killed.” Despite the fact that an armed militant group has taken over federal property, listed demands, and is holding territory with weapons, no law enforcement has engaged with–or even driven out to monitor more closely the movements of the armed militants.

Yes, that story is correct.  Now check out story 1 and story 2:  can you imagine them ending with police falling back?  would this ever happen?

Despite the fact that armed jihadists have taken over federal property, listed demands, and are holding territory with weapons, no law enforcement has engaged with–or even driven out to monitor more closely the movements of the extremists.

Or this?

Despite the fact that  armed Black radicals have taken over federal property, listed demands, and are holding territory with weapons, no law enforcement has engaged with–or even driven out to monitor more closely the movements of the armed radicals.

Nope, never going to happen.  The language and framing of the Oregon standoff case shows again the huge disparity in not only how we talk about protest, violence and terrorism, but how we as a nation think about these things. It is not just the way one group is treated, but the differential in validation, blame and punishment between groups where modern racism is at its most visible.oregon-under-attack-armed-militia-takeover-government-building.jpg

Apologists for the Oregon armed invaders are already lining up to minimize, deflect and defend. They are quick to point out that there is no looting. No looting?  Don forget the deamnds.  These “protesters” are demanding the federal government give them  federal land–how’s that for looting?

Stay tuned.

 

 

Hero With A Thousand Faces: Deal With It

Yesterday, in case you didn’t feel the ground shake, the full length trailer for the New Star Wars movie premiered during Monday Night football.  First, enjoy…

Fans of Star Wars crashed servers watching the hell out of the trailer, but it didn’t take long for the interwebz to raise one of its uglier heads.  A hashtag # BoycottStarWars appeared just hours after the trailer debuted, accusing the film of promoting White genocide.  Why the freak out?

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The main character, played by John Boyega is –wait for it–a black man. The idea that a black man is a lead, a hero and alive in outer space seems to be sending some people, well, into outer space.  Now, of course, these boycotters should feel stupid; it’s 2015, Black people are not some situation that Jim Webb controls and so you are going to see–thank God–some diversity in film.

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But when you’re done shaking your head at how cray-cray these boycotters are, consider this:  they are right in pointing out the significance of casting Boyega in the lead.  We know already that there is a real drought when it comes to lead actors of color playing the hero.  Go ahead–quick–name 5 movies with hero of color….I’ll wait while you Google it……..

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The UCLA diversity report  released in 2015 looked at films 2011-2013 and found that whites are overrepresented and minorities are underrepresented.

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When we look even more closely at the most iconic heroes conquering the silver screen, there are even fewer characters of color.  When Idris Elba’s name came up as a possible casting choice for the new James Bond, strong backlash erupted, and not just from internet trolls.  James Bond author Anthony Horowitz called Elba “too street” to play Bond.  Hey, hey, he wasn’t being racist,   just saying that Idris- friggin-Elba is “not suave” enough. What?!

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But I digress…. Celluloid heroes have always been white, sometime even when they were not supposed to be.  Remember that above all, studios are looking for products they can bank on.

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Rest easy, Star Wars producers.  Casting John Boyega as the lead is not only a good move to increase the now-dismal diversity in Hollywood films, it turns out its also good for business.  The same UCLA deviltry report found that films that featured 40% characters of color did better at the box office. Turns out, trolls, that diversity pays.

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Hollywood and the smaller tubes around are taking note of the importance of embracing diversity in order to reflect an increasingly diverse audience watching in the real world. I’m not saying Hollywood is getting it right, but they have at least identified it as an area in need of improvement.  In an increasingly diverse country, It makes good business to get out ahead of an unstoppable trend.

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Make no mistake; Star Wars is no ordinary film.  It is modern myth.  Based on the work Hero With a Thousand Faces by anthropologist Joseph Campbell, Star Wars is not just the story of a hero, it is the story of all heroes.  It is the right thing to do to create myths that reflect our culture.  We live in a world with heroes of every race, and film is long overdue to reflect this.

Boycott if you want trolls–that just leaves more seats for the true fans–those who know space has no limits.

Obligatory ‘You’re Fired’ Themed Headline

It looks like NBC isn’t going to wait until primary season to dump the Trump.  The network announced to day that it would be cutting all ties with the billionaire bombast, including Trumps once-bold-now-old reality show The Apprentice.

The Donald wasted no time before taking to the airwaves and blaming the break on political correctness.  Trump released a statement today on Instagram which said in part “NBC is weak and like everybody else is trying to be politically correct…” showing that he is powerfully incorrect in his understanding of the current state of America.

Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and murders.  That’s not edgy commentary; he is stating this as fact, going so far as to double down in his statement this afternoon.  The fact that NBC is cutting ties with Trump before the GOP which has some heavy lifting to do with Latino voters if they are to have any kind of shot in 2016.

Political correctness is a term so loaded as to lose any real meaning.  Most often it is swung like a bat at women and people of color who asked to be spoken to with dignity and respect.  The always implied idea is that those who want said respect are overreacting, need to get over it, are whining and bitching and basically ruining everyone else’s fun.

But we all pay–in one way or another–for the media messages we consume.  We pay cable bills and cell providers, click ads and pay with our time or attention.  Sometimes we pay with a vote for the messages we want to hear.  Why would any group of people want to be insulted by choice and on their own dime?  Why should any group allow themselves to be unfairly characterized just to bolster someones dogmatic campaign?  You, Trump can say what you like, and the people have the right to tell you to go screw.

Latinos make up 17% of the American population.  Other oft-dissed groups: women make up 50% of the population, African Americans at 12% , Asians at 7%–that all adds up to a lot of people.  People want to see themselves reflected and represented in a way that is respectful.  That’s not to say people can’t disagree, but slandering 55 million people isn’t respect.

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As America grows into a country lush with diversity, our entertainment, political and social dialogue should reflect.  Media celebrities complaining about political correctness are behind the curve. Plenty of smart edgy controversial people talk about identity, but the days of being able to be outright offensive without people calling you on your shit are over.  This isn’t Mad Men, Trump, and you are no Don Draper.  Connecting rape and murder to an entire race of people isn’t politically incorrect, its just incorrect.