Saturday, August 28, 2021

Throw Out the Trash Takes

As some of you know, I get ideas for some of my pieces from my daily Twitter scrolling. For the past few days, there have been a lot of interesting topics that caught my eye, from the Jeopardy host controversy, to Tha Carters starring in a Tiffany's ad, to the R. Kelly trial starting around the same time that we commemorated 20 years since Aaliyah died in that plane crash. There are a LOT of opinions, almost as many as there are people who equate mask-wearing to oppression...

So I thought that I would round up a few of the most compelling so that we can toss all this trash in one setting.

Tha Carters - I don't know what it is about the way Beyonce spends Jay Z's money that has y'all so hot and bothered, but really, why all the negativity? Most of you know I'm not a card-carrying member of the Bey-hive, and I am here for whatever well-deserved criticism they deserve from selling overpriced athleisure or tossing their pocket change to help a handful of HBCU students. But the backlash over this Tiffany's ad is befuddling. Why is this all so controversial?

I mean, didn't we all grow up in homes where EBONY magazine was a ubiquitous presence? And inside its pages, did we not see glossy photo spreads of celebrity homes and their acquisitions--their cars, furs, jewels, and fine art? Wasn't one of the most popular shows on MTV at one time called Cribs? Robin Leach anyone? Now that a few Black folks have transcended the EBONY socio-economic audience and have Town and Country cash, we've decided to denounce them as gauche? As if...

How many of us can claim to have been familiar with Jean-Michel Basquiat's work prior to the interest shown by Tha Carters? And how many of you are still wearing that Tiffany's silver link bracelet that you received as a graduation present, and have only managed to add one charm because that is all the status you can afford? Let's not get precious and conscious as if we shouldn't expect that Black billionaires aren't out here working hard to remain Black billionaires. But at least Tha Carters are still tossing a few coins in the fountain with that $2 million gift to HBCUs. 

(Actually, those aren't even their coins being tossed...$2 million is barely Bey's wig/weave budget for a year. Go on and drag 'em.)

Jeopardy vs. Reading Rainbow - Now, Imma tell the truth and shame the Devil here because as much as I LURVE LeVar Burton, I know he can do much better than settle for becoming the host of Jeopardy. I mean, let's be honest and admit that once an actor becomes a game show host, that pretty much means s/he is no longer an actor. I haven't seen the latest Drew Carey movie because there isn't one. So as much as I know that Burton would have excelled at this job, I hope he can move on to something much bigger and better because, yeah...

But since we're on the subject, I have a few thoughts on that ridiculous "audition" process and how shitty it was to bring everyone on with the delusion that they were under serious consideration. Once the producer picked himself, it became clear that everyone else had been put through the paces for the sake of appearances. And that is exactly why a lot of women and POC are nodding in recognition because we've been through this ringer plenty of times when interviewing for jobs that were never really available. Maybe there are good reasons why Burton wasn't the right fit, and as an actor he knows that most auditions don't lead to gigs. The real undeserved harm in this debacle will be the cloud it places over the head of the person who finally gets the job, since it probably won't be Mayim "Sugar Pills" Bialik. Who wants the burden of having to overcome the taint of being the third-round draft pick for a game show that most people only watch with their grandparents or right before meeting colleagues for dinner in the lobby at the hotel?

R. Kelly - So I clicked on someone's gross response to a headline about this dude's ongoing trial and it was an epic mistake. I won't repeat any of that nonsense, but I will just point out the single detail that every single one of his stans must live, die, and be judged by at the Pearly Gates when your entry gets denied: That mofo urinated on a 13 year old child during a sexual encounter with her. There isn't a note to any song he has ever written/sung/hummed that makes that okay. Children cannot consent to sex, not even with each other. If you spent any part of the day on August 25 listening to an Aaliyah tribute, just remember that he was a grown man and she was 15. Stop arguing about the culpability of the parents as justification for his abuse and enjoy eternity stomping to the name of love in Hell. 

Afghanistan - I am not a foreign policy expert, nor have I served a minute in the military, so my understanding of what is going on in that country is based on what I have observed for the past 20 years and quite literally how it all unraveled in less than 24 hours. So for me, this isn't up for political or ideological debate. The word quagmire has often been used to describe our involvement there, and it would seem that unless we can actually do something to improve the situation, this is one of those times when extraneous analysis and hindsight from the peanut gallery is pointless.

Haiti - However, if there is an international situation that is worthy of your attention, it is Haiti. The conditions there are tragic, and before anyone suggests that the failures of third world nations is due to some divine preference for the rich, let me stop you. Because then I'd have to challenge your upbringing and point out how that sentiment is a perversion of every Bible story we were taught as children. 

In several places throughout the Bible it reminds us that "the poor you will always have with you." No where does it say that our job is to judge them or complain about their inability to overcome their impoverishment, especially when we contribute to and benefit from it. Therefore, we won't argue how the legacy of colonialism, racism, and geo-political imperialism have compounded this latest series of tragic events. Instead, you just need to find a reputable organization to which your donations can be sent to provide relief. 

Kamala Harris - The caterwauling over her mere existence is on par with the whining over former President Obama's birthday party. How dare she (fill in the blank)! Like it or not, she is the Vice President, so if your wish is for President Biden to resign, then guess what?

And this is a truism for those of you who haven't read past the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, because any hopes that there will be some kind of restoration of the Trump Dynasty to the White House is proof that the Kool Aid was laced and that it was a mistake to stop airing School House Rock. It is also indicative how people need to keep dictionaries in the home because the misuse of the word incompetent is rampant. There is no job description for Vice President except to show up, which she does just as competently as the 48 others who preceded her. That one couldn't spell the word potato didn't stir up calls for his impeachment, but let her misspell a tweet and we should expect another insurrection. 

Biden = Trump - like Hell to the Naw! This is literally the Alt-left Twitter argument against the current Administration, which pairs well with the Alt-Right fantasy of a triumphant Trump return. Because some of y'all are seriously opining on Al Gore's internet that there is no daylight between Uncle Joe and the chaos and pure daily fuckery that was the Trump Reality Shitshow. I don't know what you've been smoking for the past 7 months, but the most controversial misstep made by the Biden Administration was in letting Dr. Jill reveal how kinky they get down when she wore these tights in public.

Unvaccinated Celebrities - Because of my algorithms, most of the people on my timeline are the very frustrated, masked up, and vaccinated folks who really cannot believe that we're still debating masks and vaccines in the face of a mutating virus that has had global implications for 18 months. So every time some celebrity issues a statement about not wearing masks or refusing the vaccine, I typically see it as an incredulous re-tweet, because none of us CAN BELIEVE THIS SHIT! WTF??!!

Usually I am not one to tell anybody to shut up and sing/play/rap, etc., but damn. 

The Milk Crate Challenge - Meanwhile, if there was a way to illustrate how ridiculous folks look/sound when they complain about wearing a mask was a social media challenge...

Cyber-bullying - When I first thought about the various topics I would include in this piece, one was in reaction to the tweetstorm stirred up by Sha'Carri Richardson's stunning upset in her first competition since her Olympic disqualification. She lost and because Twitter makes it possible for everyone to be a sports analyst, she got some serious ribbing. But she's a competitor on the global stage, so she has to take the cheers with the jeers and just keep on running.

I won't point to anyone in particular (Roland Martin), but you can be right and still be wrong at the same time. I personally don't think that everyone needs to clap for Richardson, but I also don't think that we should celebrate her loss as some kind of karmic lesson. That's not how to encourage people to do better. Instead it provokes the very kind of response she had upon losing, which was to dig in and clapback. Whether that was the most appropriate way to react is debatable, but having just watched the Olympics more than two weeks ago, I noted that no other last place finishers were granted post-race interviews. And upon further reflection, naw lil Sis, you don't need to be humble, you just need to win*...

As that drama gets replaced by other trending topics, this is your friendly neighborhood Busy Black reminder that words can and do sting. Actions have consequences. And just as we are responsible for the things we say in real life, we carry that same responsibility on Blue Ivy's internet where everything is written with Sharpies, not mechanical pencils. You can't undo the harm you cause someone by erasing tweets in the age of screenshots, nor should you expect any grace if that clapback strikes at your Achilles' heel. 

Social media isn't a substitute for therapy. If you have personal or professional stuff going on, Twitter ain't the venue for working through any of that. No, it isn't cool that someone took advantage of you in real life, and while it is a public service to warn others, once it becomes a crusade that involves doxxing 3rd parties, that is taking things way too far. Posting an angry rant on IG because you feel the need to defend yourself against someone who was defending you...(*yeah, I saw that recent post SR and I repeat, you need to win some hardware Sis, otherwise you are just talking loud and saying nothing). You can keep your misogynoir takes on feminism because no, grown women aren't looking for that toxic manhood punch you're selling from your Mama's basement. But I guess this is what we should have come to expect from a generation of kids raised on The Maury Show.

That's all I got for today. My can is full.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Birthday Bashers

These have been trying times. Such that folks have wasted too much time worried about Barack Obama's post-Presidency, but of course I should have expected that instead of indicting the grifting children of the former DESPOTUS or editorializing nonstop about Andrew Cuomo's epic fall, he is a more compelling topic.

This weekend, I had several hours to kill at my parents' house, and I spent that watching In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union, six full hours about Barack Obama from childhood through the end of his Presidency in 2017. It was interesting that this was airing while Twitter was all abuzz over an op-ed written by NYT gossip columnist Maureen Dowd* that was as usual, snarky and bitter after her third cocktail. I'm guessing her feelings were hurt because her invitation never arrived, so like any self-respecting Karen, she complained. 

Do I have an opinion about President Obama's 60th Birthday party? Yes. I'm salty that once again, I didn't get to experience that most bourgeois of Black mid-life accomplishments--a vacation on Martha's Vineyard with the beautiful people. Maybe one day, and because I am putting that on my bucket list, I'm claiming it by my 50th birthday. I should also put actually meeting the Obamas on that list since my daughter recently shared with me her desire to thank Michelle Obama personally for introducing her to The Gruffalo

(I've learned that the universe demands specificity on what we want and that kids think everything is about them.)

I really didn't think I needed to write anything about that party since I was not invited, and I would have imagined that most of the talking heads and keyboard hacks that are writing about it are doing so because it is a slow news cycle on the society pages. Which it should be since the world is in a crisis loop and we are all about to go on lockdown again. So I guess that justifies the kvetching about this shindig because Obama hosting a potential A-list super-spreader event is BIG news.

Shame on him! How dare he gets to be 60 years old and and still look well-rested and healthy after four years of Trump (when the rest of us look like hell)? How dare he earn enough money post-Presidency to own homes in Chicago, Washington DC, Hawaii, and Oak Bluffs? How dare he scale back his original super-exclusive guest list to a more uber-exclusive fete with his closest carefully vetted and vaccinated friends? Who does Barack Obama think he is???

That is the tone of every opinion piece and self-righteous tweet that has been circulating about this party, as if this man needs permission to throw himself a party. The audacity...when hard-working Americans are out here living their lives, he has the nerve to think that he ought to be living his too!

It's not like he's been throwing caution to the wind during this pandemic. He's been reading to children from his living room, writing his memoirs, producing content for Netflix AND advocating that we continue to wear masks and get vaccinated along with the other former Presidents. This was while the former guy was plotting an insurrection with the My Pillow guy and nudging the CDC to consider the feasibility of bleach injections. Obama rolled up his tailored shirt sleeve and urged his fellow Americans to get the vaccine, the groundwork for which began under the Bush Administration during the SARS outbreak of 2003. Still, he must shoulder the blame for those 500,000 deaths that occurred in 2020, three years after he left office. He could have done a better job of preparing Trump for a global pandemic. Instead of leaving behind detailed instructions, he should have left a pictograph. 

But what do you expect from the first Black President other than a beer summit to soothe the hurt feelings of a police officer who arrested a Black man with a PhD for trespassing on his own porch? Everything with him was symbolic, nothing substantive like health care reform. That Obama didn't single-handedly end global poverty and famine, cure cancer, or usher in world peace are all indicative of his epic failures. Therefore, he doesn't have anything to celebrate, especially not a milestone birthday. He should lead by example and live in low-key austerity because no other former President is out here making such a spectacle of himself...

We should have known that Obama would fail humanity when he didn't personally plug that pipeline leak in the Gulf of Mexico. His callous response to Hurricane Maria was to throw rolls of paper towels at the Mayor of San Juan. Remember how he left all of those people to die in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? And what about his wife, Michelle "Let them eat vegetables" Antoinette? What did she ever do for America other than make J. Crew clothes look like high fashion? Never forget that she was too busy raising her daughters and working out with late night TV hosts to just squint by her man. In her typical tone-deaf global elitist manner, she swooped in on her broomstick to those border facilities wearing that jacket from Zara, a Spanish fast fashion retailer, because Ralph Lauren would never be that cheap or provocative. 

Such a disgrace! But we can't resist the appeal of these rags to riches politicos who don't know anything about failing at business. Sure, these public servants can relate to everyman struggles like child care and racial discrimination, but not to the burdens of evading taxes and joy-riding into space. In a most distasteful display of nouveaux riche excess, Obama used the royalties from his book sales to pay off his student loans instead of going into default. And then he thought it was so altruistic to donate that Nobel Prize money, but still draw his salary as President to send his daughters to private school. Quite the grift, but what did you expect from a street savvy community organizer from Chicago? 

Certainly not much empathy for the little guy who just wants to keep his family safe. After every mass shooting, all Obama could muster up were thoughts and prayers, but never any common sense gun legislation or even sufficient sympathy for the victims. His wife's idea of supporting Second Amendment rights was to bare her arms on the cover of VOGUE while he just sat there in the White House with his paint brushes assigning everyone a stupid nickname, like Heckuva Job Brownie and Turd Blossom. He single-handedly made race relations worse by shutting down Starbucks for a whole six hours to conduct diversity training and look at how much good that did? Now we're outlawing Critical Race Theory because Americans do not need to be ashamed of the racist indigenous names and mascots of their favorite sports teams.

Never forget his many blunders on the world stage, such as that international incident of bad decorum when he wore that tailored tan suit to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen of England. How rude of him not to give QEII back those thirteen colonies he appropriated instead of an iPod! What was he thinking when he put his hands on Angela Merkel or when he refused to attend a ceremony at a French military cemetery for fear of getting his hair wet? And speaking of flagrant disrespect for our brave men and women in uniform, Obama is the one who told Colin Kaepernick to kneel during Aretha Franklin's performance at his Inauguration in that hat. Recall the disdain he showed when he forgot to salute that Marine that one time he was in such a rush to board the helicopter? Only a man so in love with himself would realize his mistake and double back to apologize. Nothing at all like the bravado of the man who never served and denounced the heroism of a decorated Vietnam War veteran because he got captured and tortured.

That same man bragged about grabbing women by the crotch, so did we honestly think he had been faithful to his third wife after she had just given birth? Did we honestly think that the Leader of the Free World would not enjoy getting blow jobs under his desk from interns who were only slightly older than his daughter? During the Obama years of barely any salacious scandals, all we have to show for it are pardoned turkeys and crowded Easter egg rolls on the White House Lawn. And what of that terrible vegetable garden that he let Lady Arugula install on the grounds--he didn't even like broccoli! Healthy eating is so un-American. Real patriotism is serving McDonald's on the White House china to the kids who fly in from all over the country to their Nation's Capitol for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of having their picture taken in the Oval Office. 

Obama was a terrible example for our children. He was polite, well-spoken, and thoughtful, but who wants their kids to see that every day and think that is how to get ahead in the world? Who has use for manners and common courtesy when cyber-bullying people on Twitter is a more effective way to develop one's vocabulary and character? Obama ought to be in jail for the irreparable harm his Presidency caused--by virtue of getting elected and giving this country HOPE...

He needs to be put in his place for inspiring a young idealist like Lauren Underwood (D-IL) as well as a determined advocate like Lucy McBath (D-GA) to have the audacity to serve in Congress. He deserves the blame for creating space at the table for Tim Scott (R-SC) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in the Senate; for convincing Stacy Abrams and Chris Jones (D-AR) to think that they could become Southern governors; and for paving the way for Vice President Kamala Harris to shatter glass domes and hopefully the entire ceiling. For all of the harsh criticism and over-analysis of the Obama effect during his eight years as President, perhaps his biggest impact is yet to be realized.

So now one last sentence on Ms. Dowd, for it would appear that having spent the better part of the last twelve years deeply offended that she will never get invited to the cookout, one wonders how it escaped her notice that the problem isn't how hard the Obamas are trying to be cool... just a dash of bitters for her next old fashioned.

* Her Aug. 15 column is premium content on the NYT website

Monday, August 9, 2021

Appreciation: Nobody Beats the Biz

The weekend that rapper/DJ Biz Markie (Marcel Theo Hall) made his transition, I was having major wifi issues. My intentions to post a tribute were upended because I rely on YouTube for those, and it just wouldn't come together in time. As we all know, technology is great until it isn't, so I figured I would come back to it a few days later but then you know how being a Busy Black Woman means stuff comes up and...

Then I saw a lot of nonsense on Twitter recently involving several current rap artists and between realizing that I don't know who any of those jokers are and the fact that I still hadn't posted a song tribute to Biz (or any new playlists in a while), I thought the time was right for me to school some of you youngins' about the old school. Because y'all be trippin!

Both 2020 and 2021 have been brutal for Generation Xers who feel some kind of way whenever we see a name from our past suddenly trending on social media. It is a heart-stopping moment for sure, especially when we learn that one of our faves from back in the day has died. In recent months, we lost John 'Ecstasy' Fletcher from Whodini, Mark Anthony Morales bka Prince Markie D from The Fat Boys, Gregory 'Shock G' Jacobs from Digital Underground, Earl 'DMX' Simmons, and now Biz. Last year, we lost Andre Harrell, and the day I pulled that playlist together was when I realized just how long most of us old heads have been listening to hip hop. All of a sudden we're celebrating milestone birthdays, watching a Salt 'n Pepa biopic, calling Snoop Dog Grandpa, and realizing that a quarter of a century has passed since Biggie and Tupac were killed, so yes, it is safe to say that we are at a midlife crossroads.

Hip hop has changed. Really changed.

I can tell you several things as I reflect on the number of years it has been since I learned all of the words to Rapper's Delight (1979) and how I got such a kick out of watching Breakin' 2 every summer (and how sad it was to watch it recently after the recent death of Adolfo 'Shabba Doo' Quinones). And the first thing is to say that rap has come a long way, but sometimes it feels like damn, but where did it go? Has the art form matured or did I just get too old for that shit? And that is a serious question, especially as I try to pay attention to what my daughter might accidentally come across one day on YouTube.

What happened?

Second, for the entire week that people were posting remembrances of Biz, I noted that every single tribute spoke of his humor, his kindness, and all-around good nature. Those are not descriptions that I have ever heard in connection to today's current crop of rappers, so this tribute to Biz mourns both his physical passing and the death of era. Once upon a time, rap was fun and we played certain songs to get the party started. Remember the days when all of the music videos were terrible and corny like Biz Is Goin' Off, but we loved them anyway? Remember Make Music With Your Mouth and how beat-boxing was a thing?

Third, and this is definitely me admitting my age, it is scary when artists from your youth die and you suddenly realize that old is relative. A dude who dies at 52 is the same age as the Hub, so that makes me nervous as hell. And quite honestly, there is a range of about ten years in either direction that no longer counts as "old" so we're just as likely to get emotional over the death of any artist from the 80s and 90s. We are still mourning Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston because of how HUGE they were, and for that matter, we're still not over Aretha Franklin even though she was in her 70s when she passed back in 2018.

Fourth, and again, showing my age and speaking for myself, I don't get y'all. It was so effed up when Biggie and Tupac died, such that I lost my love for the music and the culture it glorified. It was mind-blowing to lose two artists to senseless violence at such a young age six months apart. It ruined the enjoyment to watch award shows to see who might end up fighting, since in our day, rappers worked their beefs out on vinyl or on tape. Nowadays, it seems that every few months, some young rapper gets killed over some nonsense, and y'all just keep it moving on to the next big act. 

Biz came on the scene back when rap was in its toddler years and everybody was part of a crew. Specifically, he was part of the Juice Crew, which included Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. By the time I had heard of him, I had no idea of his connection to the Roxanne Wars, which was definitely a bigger deal in New York than elsewhere (two songs, Roxanne Roxanne by UTFO and Roxanne's Revenge by Shante). That is a separate rabbit hole, but a whole year's worth of dis records and nobody died. Instead it launched music careers.

I know it is an over-simplification to say that no one died, when in fact, part of the overall message of rap music in those early days was to address the frustrations of growing up in the hood. Rappers like Biz certainly got the party started and kept it hype, but at the same party, you were going to hear a song like The Message (1982) in the mix. The conventional wisdom about New York City and most big cities in the 1980s was that urban blight and decay were symptoms of an inherent pathology born and bred in the ghetto (not caused by neglect or the conditions that were imposed on those communities). People did die from drug overdoses, run-ins with the police, intimate partner violence, and from community-based crime. A lot of those themes were highlighted in a movie like Beat Street (1984), but that went over a lot of our heads... 

Biz didn't build his career on those gritty realities, but his music did provide an escape from them. Wasn't it the goal of every teenage boy in the 80s, even ones from the hood, to impress his friends? So he's flashing his name brand apparel, bragging about his attempts to get the attention of a potential love interest, and hyping his crew. If John Hughes' movies captured that spirit for the suburban mall crowd, then a song like The Vapors (1988), represented the same aspirations with Biz and Crew hanging out on a chartered boat, wearing those chunky gold rope chains, tailored suits, and surrounded by women--the life that existed just over the bridge or through the tunnel.

The notion of Biz as a ladies man had to be a recurring joke, but he was in on it, so that's what made songs like What Goes Around Comes Around (1991) and Let Me Turn You On (1995) part of the fun of listening to him. He never took himself too seriously, as evidenced by his album cover art, his willingness to poke fun of himself in Men in Black 2 and on Yo Gabba Gabba, and in commercial jingles. Only a big kid would have songs in his discography like Pickin' Boogers and Toilet Stool Rap. Only a dude like Biz would call himself 'The  Diabolical' and mean it as a cartoonish mad scientist. 

His biggest hit song was Just a Friend (1989), which came out during my last year of high school. To let Billboard or MTV tell it, Biz was a one-hit wonder, in spite of the fact that his earlier Black-famous songs were in regular rotation on BET. Nobody Beats the Biz (1988) was based on the jingle for a popular record store chain where I bought several old school hip hop albums. While I liked his corny story-telling on songs like She's Not Just Another Woman, his schtick could be one-note. There was no progression in his style from songs like Spring Again to Young Girl Bluez (1993), two albums and four years later. So even if it is true that the peak of his music career was short-lived, Biz was one of the earliest rappers to reinvent himself instead of fading into obscurity. He did some acting, reality TV, and then at one point, he even taught a celebrity cooking class.

Biz wasn't the only rapper who found himself left behind at the end of what I would call the first golden era of hip hop. What has been clear about the nature of rap music, even in those early days was that one was only as popular as their current hit record. In fact a better analogy might be that a career in rap music was a lot like having a career in professional sports. So by the time I got to college, Biz was already being eclipsed by the genre shift from party rap to conscious rap. He tried, like on this compilation song, Erase Racism (1990), but that really wasn't his lane. When gangsta rap took over, his style was effectively passé. Although he continued to release music throughout the 90s, and a final studio album in 2003 that included an appearance by P. Diddy on Do Your Thang, most of us missed that.

Instead, we kept up with his other endeavors, particularly his return to his roots on the turntables. For anyone not old enough to remember his rap career, he was a DJ, and many of the remembrances that were posted over the past several weeks were pictures taken with him at some show or party. I attended a show or two, but can't tell you which ones and as always I have no pictures of my own. I definitely took it for granted that I would get more chances to see Biz perform live, until this past year he spent in a coma. I imagine if he could have kept us entertained during this pandemic, he would have been spinning alongside his old school friends Jazzy Jeff, D-Nice, Questlove, and DJ Kool. I'm sure he would have shown up for rapper Kwame's birthday on Instagram, as well as the classic hip hop Pass the Mic with DJ Cassidy. Or he might have treated us to a Verzuz against Kid Capri.

This is the point in this appreciation where I begin to sound like one of those old relatives at the barbecue, sizing up some little scrub when an old jam comes on, "What you know about that, youngster?" Because every song included in this piece, every video...all of it has me in my feelings. Nostalgia has that effect of course, but this is more a heavy sigh that for the last 18 months, music has brought us a lot of comfort in the face of uncertainty. It has been reassuring to check in with these old school artists and deejays from my youth and know that the most risqué line my daughter will hear in a song like Just a Friend is about the girl wearing a very big bra. I'm not changing my tune about the right of this current generation to express itself, but y'all don't leave nothing to the imagination. Not-a-damn-thing.

That brings us back to the rhetorical question posed at the outset, because we know what happened to the music and to everything else--time. Biz didn't die a young man stripped prematurely from life with a world of unmet potential laid before him. He was already an elder statesman getting sampled by his peers 30 years ago, so we need to celebrate him like we would any other legendary pioneer by continuing to enjoy his music. We owe it to that first wave of artists to make sure that our kids know their music before we're mourning their passing. This generation needs to know that once upon a time, rappers like Biz used hip hop to express their aspirations for living, not dying in these streets. 

The last song in this tribute is Turn tha Party Out (2001), which is something Biz always did. And that is the best way to end this tribute, with a head bop, a crooked smile, and appreciation for all of the fond memories.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Hard Talk for Hard Times

My friend Ol' Hobbes dropped a landmine of a question on Facebook recently regarding the casting in King Richard, the biopic about Richard Williams, the father and tennis Svengali of Venus and Serena. What began as a question about the choice for Will Smith to portray Williams became a deep conversation about colorism within the Black community.

Now a few weeks back, I explicitly tap danced around this topic when it was raised in the Latinx community with the casting of Lin-Manual Miranda's In The Heights...and I will give you a minute to think back to that whirlwind of a weekend when we suddenly had a new federal holiday and we were contemplating the cancellation of Rita Morena. And I mention her name because I already know that some of what I am going to say may sound a bit like what she said in defense of Miranda, so let me just tell you up front that I am wearing my big girl panties.

Colorism conversations are hard. They are difficult when you already know that you are coming from a position of privilege because of the perceived biases that are supposed to work in your favor. I am not using air quotes around any of this, because in this crazy effed up post-Trumpian world we live in, Black and Indigenous and Latinx and Asian-Pacific Islander and LGBTQIA and Muslim and white women not named Karen are all marginalized political identities. Yet, we all know that there are degrees, and so before anyone thinks I am All Lives Mattering this, I am not. Your blues are not like mine.

Colorism conversations are emotional because it is both an external form of oppression imposed on us as well as an internal form of oppression perpetuated by us. Just meditate on that for a moment. Non-Black people have stigmatized us with their biases in favor of certain supposed preferred features and in turn, Black people have found ways to do the same. And I can replace the word Black with any of the marginalized populations I listed and it would still be true--darker skin, darker hair, and certain voluptuous physical characteristics have been maligned in favor of fair skin, blonde hair, and daintier physiques.

On the thread, I offered my opinion that Will Smith, having a certain amount of clout in Hollywood, decided that in order to get this film made, he was going to produce and star in it. I excused the choice to cast a darker-skinned actor in the role of Williams because it made sense to me that Smith, being the producer, had the right to play that role and the larger issue was getting a broader variety of stories like this one to the big screen. A brother on the thread countered that as a dark-skinned actor who routinely got passed over for roles, he felt it was a conscious choice not to cast someone else and that even among Black actors with "clout" colorism is still an issue.

I read through more of the responses and there were a lot of issues raised that were compelling arguments in favor of and against this casting. Then I discussed some of the responses with the Hub, and we went through a list of casting decisions over the years where the skin color of the actor had not been the decisive factor. For example, we noted that the late Nelson Mandela had been portrayed by three different actors: Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, and Idris Elba. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been portrayed by a variety of actors, as have Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and Harriet Tubman. In most cases, the casting choice was determined by the status of the actor, and not their skin color or in some cases, their country of origin.

Therefore, my argument is and always will be that we need to expand the stories that get told so that there are more opportunities for more Black actors, period. And as soon as I typed those words and hit send, a mini Rita Moreno (from her days as Otto the director on The Electric Company) popped up on my shoulder as a pixie and shouted "Hey you Boob, how is that any different than what I said?" And I paused like a person in the throws of an ethical dilemma and figured I would take this opportunity to confront the very topic that I usually avoid like the third rail on the subway.

So here goes: it is and it isn't any different. It isn't different when you realize that the people who have been given seats at the proverbial table do have certain privileges that they may or may not notice. Lin-Manuel Miranda probably doesn't see himself as marginalizing Afro-Latinx actors and performers if he pats himself on the back for the creative casting of Hamilton. Will Smith doesn't see his choice to portray Richard Williams as taking a role from a darker skinned actor if he got the rest of the casting right. Both Smith and Miranda would say, "We are telling stories that otherwise would not be told, but we are also working actors, so..." and they are absolutely right.

And we are putting tremendous pressure on the few representatives at the table to make art that tells a variety of untold stories. We expect Black American actors to get preference for roles that have gone to Black Brits without recognizing that our cousins probably don't get the same opportunities across the pond. We expect a Broadway composer whose family comes from an island territory to tell all of the stories of the Caribbean (but didn't place any such demands on Disney to do better in its movie franchise set in the same area). We keep looking for our version of the American story--the one where not all of us were born poor or middle class or rich or in a two-parent family or raised by a grandparent or sent to boarding school or with a strong father or with a loving family or one where I see myself and can feel proud.

Colorism is more than just what I see on screen. 

When Beyonce released the song Brown Skinned Girl, there was a lot of Twitter chatter and I remember thinking, huh? Some girl went so far as to create a hashtag and a video in praise of light-skinned girls and whew, Lawd! That response was controversial enough to warrant think pieces like this and perhaps I should have written my own response two years ago, but I had already written two pieces (about dolls and The Rock) the previous year and thought those had made my positions clear. 

Here is where I throw caution to the wind: I am Black too and so is my daughter. What frustrates me about colorism conversations is that these choices are presented as binary without any nuance or consideration for the fact that not all of us are ever represented when it comes to Blackness. Just as all representations of whiteness are not all captured by a blond with blue eyes, not all Latinx people are Mexican, not all Asians perform martial arts, and not all gay men are named Mark, Rick, or Steve

And here is where it gets super personal: colorism is the baggage I carried for years, of not being Black enough. In a family full of brown-skinned people, I was born with fair-skin. I am lighter than my parents thanks to the genes of my paternal Grandfather. He was very fair-skinned, so when I was growing up, I was teased because people assumed he was white. He was a familiar presence at my elementary school, where he came everyday to pick me and my brother up in his old blue station wagon. Once he came to a school program for me, and because he was indoors and wasn't wearing his trademark trucker hat, a teacher asked, "Who is that old bald white man in the audience?" And when I responded that was my Grandfather, she apologetically said, "Oh, I didn't know he was white."

The thing is, he wasn't white. I asked him point blank, and he told me that he was colored so I went back to school and proudly told everyone. Then they laughed at me, "We aren't colored, we're Black." Never mind that my grandfather had been drafted, but not allowed to fight in World War II because of his race. Never mind that he spent his time in the Army as a cook, even though he was trained as a marksman. Never mind that his father had been a Buffalo Soldier. It was the 80s and his outward appearance made me look guilty by association.

I could list the various ways over the years that my Blackness has been challenged, and the explanation would be that kids are cruel and say mean things. So do adults. And for the most part, I am fine until these colorism conversations occur and the implication is that the best representation of Blackness in popular culture is darker skin. I understand that it is far more nuanced than that because I am well aware that there is a need to counter the harmful narratives about Blackness. This is why we celebrate darker skin and physical features that historically were ridiculed. So on this we can touch and agree that we can always do a better job.

Hollywood casting decisions can be made with more sensitivity and awareness. To cite one of the most egregious examples that involves Will Smith himself, there is the saga of recasting Janet Hubert with Daphne Maxwell-Reid as Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There was the recasting of the oldest daughter from My Wife and Kids; the disappearance of daughter Judy in Family Matters yet they found reasons to keep Richie; Sondra and Denise Huxtable; Coming to America; and I'm sure we could find plenty of other examples. At the same time, it is fair to point out that singer Brandy Norwood had her own sitcom, Viola Davis helmed her own show, and Prince Naveen didn't flinch when Tiana became human again.  

We've come a long way since School Daze. In fact, I have always argued that the tensions depicted in that film were exaggerated and that the real beef centered around the dynamics of social class and political activism. Because nobody at all:

Yet, it hits a nerve for a lot of people who feel that there are unearned privileges that come with fairer skin. It would be dishonest to assert otherwise. This very issue was the subject of a documentary that was produced a decade ago, Dark Girls (2011), which was painful but necessary to watch. But it is wrong to assume that fairer skinned Blacks don't encounter the obstacles of racism, or that generally, we don't advocate on behalf of our darker hued siblings. We are all still marching for liberation. Of course, I can only speak for myself. In the words of Issa Rae, I am always rooting for everybody Black.

Colorism conversations are polarizing, yet that doesn't mean we should avoid them. We should engage with sensitivity. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda needed to be made aware that his efforts to make space for the Latinx community sometimes fall short, because when I watched the video he did for Puerto Rico hurricane relief again, I did notice that there were no Afro-Latinx artists included. Gloria Estefan is Cuban, bro. As my daughter and I are watching various Olympic events together, I need her to see Jasmine Camacho-Quinn to know that yes, her mother is from the same island where her abuela was born. And she was Black too.

And since we are waiting for King Richard to premier, let's not sabotage that film the way y'all did In the Heights and then turn around to complain that there are too many slave movies. If you're going to accuse Will Smith of colorism for casting himself as the star of his own movie, then bring that same energy for Tyler Perry the next time he puts on that Madea wig and dress. Let's be vocal about the fact that certain white actresses always find work and can sue for more money, while most actresses of color are lucky just to be cast. Furthermore, let's not dismiss the fact that there are other Black folks in Hollywood who are casting darker skinned actors and producing excellent work such as Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), The Photograph (2020), and A Night In Miami (2020). Are we just going to skip over those other films to bash one? 

Colorism exists. It isn't just a Black thing, but people of color do need to reclaim our stories and interpret them so that we can counteract the versions that have been sold about us. If Will Smith didn't tell Richard Williams' story, this could have been another Green Book (2018), centered on the redemption of the white people who witnessed these lives, but never lived an hour in their truth. The same people who taught us to be ashamed of our skin, our hair, and our curves? Does anyone really think that Will Smith would not do this man's story justice? That Smith, also a Black father with high ambitions and big dreams for his children, would not be able to articulate the type of drive and audacity it would take to defy expectations that Williams' two girls from the hood could become world-class champions?

And what is the deal with hating on Will Smith anyway? While y'all are out here talking about his marriage, his children, and some of his unforgettable film flops, he keeps on grinding. Not just in front of the camera, but also as a producer of movies where he did not insert himself such as The Secret Lives of Bees (2008) and Annie (2014). And yeah, Amanda Seales does have a point, but in the tradition of great origin stories, Daddy Williams is the main character. After two weeks of watching the Olympics and the vignettes shared about the various athletes, all of their backstories prominently feature their dedicated parents.

It is a universal theme of unselfish sacrifice, but one that hits differently when the subject is a Black father (Earl Woods and LeVar Ball come to mind). And the common thread that links the three of them in particular is their over-confidence and eagerness to take credit for their children's success. These aren't inspirational stories in the traditional vein, so we can't just let anybody tell them. In this context, colorism becomes a distraction of superficial nuance. It isn't Richard Williams' darker skin that makes his story so incredible. This man never played tennis as a professional. He wrote a playbook for how his daughters, barely in Kindergarten, would become tennis phenoms. He raised his family in Compton and trained those girls on the public tennis courts. His personal life reads like the kind of family drama that gets discussed when grown folks would send us to the store on impossible errands. 

Have you ever really listened to Will Smith offer his philosophy on life? While y'all are caught up debating whether he is the best actor for this role based on the hue of his skin, did anybody consider that Richard Williams doesn't give a damn that they don't physically resemble each other? That man is peacock proud and feeling personally vindicated right now. Shiiid, I mean, if I had the choice of who would play me on screen, I would pick Will Smith too...

Will Smith is Richard Williams. Let's give him a chance to do this right instead of giving us another tired Bad Boys sequel. And he's Black too.