See Our Diversity

the digits shammer zamata

And here are those words:

mazel tov wow they are good we’re never gonna win you’re right two chains that’s why you’re the big brother resolution revolution dad get out of here you’re embarrassing me no dad I’m serious I told you to sit in the bathroom all night go away sorry my dad is so lame melody stop that’s my dad dad we don’t want to talk about school that’s probably why you had to repeat 7th grade twice yeah

Shasheer’s Here But Drake Takes the Cake

This week Saturday Night Live debuted their latest cast member, Shasheer Zamata. Her addition to the 39 year old comedy ensemble came after well-publicized and deserved criticism led to the show bowing to pressure listening to the criticism and—surprise, surprise—finding the talent they thought was so elusive. Shasheer brings the total women of color on the show to 4 of 138 cast members over 39 years, or almost 3%, still well below the 18% that women of color make up in the general population.   Hype bubble busted.

sasheer zamata

Shasheer’s talent is undeniable, but let’s take a look at the actual episode.  First let us say that this talented young actress has earned her spot on the show, with a solid track record in comedy.  Shasheer appeared in several of the opening skits to satisfy the hungry eyeballs.  But making media diversity work is about two things—the number of people of different races and also the quality of the character that they portray.  While Shasheer did make it into 4 sketches with 5 characters—more than some of the other new cast member added in the fall–I’m not so sure we really got to see her stretch her wings.

drake-snl1-590x314

In her debut episode, Shasheer played Keenan Thompson’s wife at a bar mitzvah, a dancing smoking Rhianna-as-Blossom, Two Chains’ younger sister, a backup singer, a girl hosting a slumber party and a student in detention.  Ground breaking?  Not yet.  So while SNL did finally get it together and try to do the right thing incorporated more diversity into their line-up by adding a black female, the jury is still out to see if they will provide the opportunity for her to play characters that go beyond stereotypical roles.

Here’s the bigger story:   stealing the diversity card for the show was the guest host Drake.  Of course he appeared in more sketches, but what made the night his was the diversity of roles he played.  Drake himself has a background that breaks stereotypes: rapper but not gangster, Canadian, multiracial and, as he told us, polite.  Because we know him to be all these things, SNL played with the kinds of characters he portrayed with barely a nod to playing a chain-wearing gang banger.

drake-nerd

It seems like SNL was able to write interesting roles for Drake that asked us to question racial boundaries as we laughed.  The range of charters he played brought a sparkle of diversity into an otherwise typically stereotypical episode.  Now if they can just learn to keep those roles coming for their regular cast members, they may be on to something.

Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy and Black People

This week the Pew Foundation released a report confirming that so-called “Black Twitter” exists.  In case you thought this meant that Black people are finally discovering the interwebs thingy, Okayplayer–a long time round the way site–lays down some  history of Black net nation.  If you remember Black planet, you know we didn’t just get here, but welcome to the party, Pew.

The Suprise Lord of the Dance (Track)

Have you checked out this lid-blowing secret from the music industry?   Hold on to your Katy Perry pompoms.  Your favorite star many not have birthed their biggest hit.

The headline for me isn’t that one man is so amazing that he made all these hits, but that the music industry functions much the same as, say, the peanut butter or paper towel industry in that packaging changes, but behind the scenes, companies are more connected than their brand names would suggest.    We cheer our hearts for our beloved pop stars, without realizing we are being sold a prefab fabulousness.

The label holdings of Universal, the largest of the four major music companies.  That's right, the majority of music in America is produced under one of four companies.
The label holdings of Universal, the largest of the four major music companies. That’s right, the majority of music in America is produced under one of four companies.

While Boy in a Band celebrated the amazinosity of Max Martin, lots of people would use a word other than hero.  The pop market of the last twenty years has been called flaccid and insipid, with songs increasingly indistinguishable from each other.

Far from being a fair competition between hundreds of thousands of want-to-be-stars competing not for industry judges or reality TV show audiences, it is an INDUSTRY with a massive internal structure completely mysterious and unknown most consumers.   Call it the MIC, Musical Industrial Complex.  And before you shout American Idol at me, reality TV shows determine the total course of the music industry in the same way that Project Runway runs New York fashion week.  A few breakout stars each season are not the primary drivers of the multibillion-dollar music business.

Surprise, the song is not just a spontaneous creative flash from your favorite singer, but part of a process that creates a product for sale.
Surprise, the song is not just a spontaneous creative flash from your favorite singer, but part of a process that creates a product for sale.

Sure, the industry works, pumping out stars and filling a variety of pockets, but do you ever wonder what music you would hear if we had access to fresh faces, unheard voices pulled not from the most popular but from the best.

Musical talent abounds in hidden corners of every city.  The music industry selects what they think will be profitable.  As Billy Sparks said in Purple rain “This is a business; you ain’t gone too far to see that…” have you?  Of the hundreds of thousands of records released by record labels this year, only a few hundred get mass market airplay, and fewer still get the massive distribution needed to become a hit.  Never mind the thousands of talented people that never get that break.  Think of all those talent show videos where judges are blown away by a deep well of talent in an unsuspecting contestant.  Have you ever seen someone in your own community who can really belt it out—but is far from a record deal?  What about your favorite local band that never made it big?

So while I doff my hat to the creative genius behind Baby Hit Me One More Time, I also say, move over Max and let someone else shine.  There will be hits, even if you don’t write them all.

media, race, and pop culture explained