“My concern is the arrival of new ground that replaces…specific places as primary signifiers of identity.” –Willie Jennings from The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
I’m not even sure if the phrase “the black blogosphere” is appropriate anymore to denote that which is the conglomerate of black social media commentary, Black Twitter, news websites dedicated to African American culture (think HuffPo Black and NBCBlk as well as The Root or The Grio) as well as independent websites (think For Harriet and Very Smart Brothers). For the sake of this conversation, I’d like to call this black syndicate media. This is to differentiate it from American mainstream media (cable news outlets, as well as the big three networks of CBS, ABC and NBC). In much the same way that American mainstream media generally focuses on one particular angle to tell the same story without much variation, the black syndicate media often does the same. While it may be counter to what American mainstream media in very apparent ways, the same group ethos emerges along with a dominant narrative and thereby a singular group conscience. If you also read groupthink in the midst of that, you would be correct. Such is the narrative around Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar.
I don’t want to take up time, space and words rehashing the litany of back and forth critique and responses on the two, but it is worth revisiting the dots I’ve connected from the moment that Beyonce released her single “Formation” until the subsequent days in which Kendrick Lamar performed the mashup of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” from his album To Pimp a Butterfly. The beginning dot for me was a 3 hour conversation with one of my best friends two days after “Formation” dropped and already after the Super Bowl halftime show.
While Black Twitter was beside itself, I dropped my obligatory tweets but was trying to focus on reflection rather than reaction when it came to my thoughts on “Formation.” My friend called just in general and he and I eventually discussed–at length–the music video. He had connected many pieces of southern culture that he recognized that I just didn’t see. Partly because of my own biases about the South (that’s for another blog), the fact that I’m from Chicago and also that I personally, don’t consider New Orleans to be the South culturally–an argument he didn’t buy based on his visits, despite the fact that I’ve lived there for a combined six-and-a-half years and have very close family that live all throughout south central and south eastern Louisiana. It was the first moment in which I offered up criticism of “Formation.”
By the next day, as the euphoria of the video had dampened, there were legitimate and weighty think-pieces coming from New Orleans natives flat out accusing Beyonce of cultural appropriation not just of New Orleans, but specifically of the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. It was at that moment I realized that some of those images were triggers for me inasmuch as it did force me to mildly relive the awesome tragedy that had befell the city. If my Facebook timeline of New Orleans natives reposting those contrary think-pieces were any indication of the whole, it was clear not every black person was 100% ecstatic about “Formation.”
While I was fine with the bits of what could be misconstrued as cultural appropriation, I was having legitimate problems with the uninterpreted images she displayed. While the American Negro gothic on the front porch to the antebellum costumes inside the house were presumable nods to Southern culture, the B-roll images of New Orleans, an empty swimming pool and a parking lot didn’t exactly scream southern anything to me. Much less revolutionary.
Beyonce was catapulted into black revolutionary status (and I’m still trying to figure out what qualifies one as such) following her Super Bowl performance specifically. The back-up dancers came out in what was to be perceived as Black Panther-esque fashion, and this was supported by the fact the dancers took a post-performance picture that made it to the internet that was clearly meant to invoke the Black Panther Party and the likes of Rudy Giuliani saw it as a nod to the Black Panthers and therefore Beyonce was suddenly anti-police. Notwithstanding the gaze of white onlookers into a culture they know nothing about nor desire to, Beyonce had single-handedly captured the imagination of black feminism, black womanism, black youth, black radicals and millions others under the umbrella of commercial pop culture.
Many of those in black syndicate media dubbed this the “Blackest Black History Month Ever” because of Kendrick Lamar’s performance as the Grammys just this past Monday night. Suddenly, the immediate comparison of Beyonce and Kendrick’s performances erupted in a fight as to who was more radical than the other.
It was at that moment I wanted to tear my hair out.
This is a silly fight.
I had currently been reading The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie Jennings and he was making the larger case for the systematic ways in which Europeans created the scale of whiteness by which everything was to be measured. In the first chapter he historically showed the ways in which indigenous people native to places that were not Europe used the land–the actual physical and geographical land–as the basis for which everything was measured and how essentially Europeans, by taking the land, replaced whiteness with the land. Ultimately, that also means the basis for identity is shifted. In much the same way much of African American culture is familiar with the so-called white standard of beauty, that base of whiteness is the rubric by which everything else is measured. The opening quote at the top of this piece echoes clearly when I watch the ways in which black folks twist and turn in order to shape their own identity as a way to attempt to respond to oppression that is white supremacy. Jennings also says:
The issue of identity now invokes a universe of modern conceptualities, some of which are respected in academic circles as new healthy convergences of multiple scholarly fields and interests, others of which are denounced as faddism, this is, creating undisciplined anachronisms running roughshod over historical periods and peoples.
I wonder at what point have we, those that participate in the black syndicate media, done nothing more than recreate the system of rhetorical oppression in the ways that we divorce ourselves from discourse on the sake of performing identity politics?
Beyonce and Kendrick don’t need to be compared to one another. And certainly not on the basis of one being more revolutionary than the other. For starters, Kendrick is a rapper and the nature of that genre has historically lent itself to being radical and revolutionary in ways that pop-music has not. Rap has a very long history of being counter culture and pop music is just that: popular music reflecting the complacency of culture not the dissatisfaction with culture. Secondly, the body of Kendrick’s music is much more full of cultural criticism and the typical misogyny both of which are a part of the rap genre. With songs like “Swimming Pools” and “Dying of Thirst” you get both heavy cultural criticism, themes of nihilism as well as the notion of redemption and some theology in the midst (middle of the album, a neighbor has Kendrick and his friends recite a prayer for Christian salvation) not to mention his “Backseat Freestyle” in which he does both cultural criticism and simultaneously makes a nod to his “wifey, girlfriend and mistress.” Meanwhile Beyonce’s body of work as far as popular songs includes “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Soldier” and “Cater to You.”
In all fairness, Beyonce has contributed to pop culture in ways that Kendrick has not, and by her being a black woman is revolutionary and radical in its own right. With catchy pop songs such as “Run the World,” “Love on Top” or “Single Ladies” just to name a few, it is indicative that her star so greatly outshines Kendrick and is more than enough for me to say that it’s not fully fair to compare the two. Both occupy their own lanes and in their own rights, both are wildly successful. Personally, I do think that, much like the Washington Post’s Jeff Guo who wrote “Beyoncé waited until black politics was so undeniably commercial that she could make a market out of it,” is correct, but does this create a closed canon on black political and cultural possibilities of an individual or celebrity? Maybe. Is Beyonce’s “Formation” a form of black cultural appropriation for the sake of capitalist gain? Perhaps.
What bothers me the most in the midst of this is the ways in which many of us are doing identity politics. This way says that because she is Bee-yawn-say then she is above and beyond criticism–and that’s not how this works! For every criticism that “Formation” was mediocre at best or of lyrics that repeat the words “slay” and “okay” multiple times, there was the counter criticism that Kendrick engages in misogynistic lyrics. One of the most recent Salon articles, from black syndicate media, pointed this out concerning Kendrick and also brought Kanye’s “Gold Digger” into the foray to discuss the ways that Kendrick is somehow getting a pass for his lyrics while Beyonce is being overly criticized. In all fairness, if the entire corpus of one’s work is on the table, then so is Beyonce’s work even when she was with Destiny’s Child. The ways in which she fully engaged in patriarchy were on full display when asking for a man to pay her “Bills,” refashioning the troubling image of black masculinity in “Soldier” and flat out capitulating to men in “Cater to You.” It’s this type of one-sided discourse that is troubling to me, and I go back and see the words of Willie Jennings reminding me that this is bigger than us.
Much like the American mainstream media, the black syndicate media has a short memory. We collapse narratives often. Beyonce and “Formation” exist in a vacuum as if there was not a Beyonce before, and the only way we interpret the present moment is through or current fascination. Same with Kendrick. But again, since black syndicate media is a carbon copy of the larger mainstream media, we will move from this moment in the next two weeks or less. Think-pieces have their place for immediate reaction, but the ways in which we sit and reflect about these things have gone the way of the dodo bird.
Kendrick Lamar did for me in my black maleness what Beyonce seemed to do for many black women. However, I never saw Kendrick as a savior, I never needed him to be the way others may have (or still) need that image of a powerful black woman who slays her opponents. But what I did need from Kendrick, I got. I got someone who proudly spoke of his male body from a place of self-love and self-worth, and not from a place of dominance in which his body was a tool in which to violently oppress other black women. One of the most powerful lines in hip hop music for me right now is from “The Blacker the Berry” which says “my hair is nappy, his dick is big, his nose is round and wide.”
When have black men had the permission to say that aloud and in public?
In much the same way that black women have found a new liberating voice at this dawn of the 21st century, there are many black men in this country who are are also in-process, if you will, as to figuring out what that looks like for them as well. Fact of the matter is that the goal posts of blackness seem to change from day to day depending on which think-piece you read or which person on Twitter you follow. The by-product of moving the goalposts is that those who are doing the moving are exerting their power over others, requiring the rest to go through extreme lengths to make the “goal.” It also creates a type of identity orthodoxy where in the matter of weeks or months one is forced to rethink and reframe their own identity narrative because the moving of the goalposts require this to be linear work rather than something that is messy and more often than not complicated. Black Lives Matter and Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray Mckesson was known for his phrase “I love your blackness–and mine,” perhaps as an attempt to acknowledge the ways in which blackness doesn’t have to look the same for each person. As a bit of a rebuttal, I’d proffer that my blackness is complicated, and so is yours. Sometimes one’s perceived blackness doesn’t operate in a linear way; some times all of the dots actually don’t connect.
Recognizing how heavily I’ve been influenced to move beyond ontological blackness, this particular spat fueled by the black syndicate media is a case-in-point of the problems that exist in the ways that we do blackness. The way it’s portrayed in the opinion minefield that is Twitter and Facebook, to identify with Beyonce means you are a mindless bot that ignores the ways capitalism feed her pop-culture status, and to identify with Kendrick means you probably harbor Hotepian ideology and have a secret man-crush on Umar Johnson. Both of which are gross generalizations that ignore the nuances and contextual complexities in which most of us live by. When we do this in the black syndicate media spaces, it employs the same logic that white conservatives use requiring Muslims to denounce ISIS at every chance they get or the way that blacks in public spaces (from professors on a panel discussion, to black political commentators on the evening cable news channels) are required to denounce anyone from Jeremiah Wright to Louis Farrakhan.
The ways in which we do identity politics, in which we do blackness is most often a response, a reaction even, to the furtive ways in which white supremacy have invaded our everyday lives. Even to the reality that our use of English as a language of communication is imbued with the sin of white supremacist conceptualization; we use the oppressors language to describe our own oppression.
I write this two weeks after “Formation” debuted and a week after the Grammys where Kendrick performed, and neither of these two are in the headlines even remotely. I write this still because I believe in reflection, an exercise that I wish more practiced. But much like the dodo bird, resurrection has not come for it and I wonder is that the ultimate fate of intentional reflection. What does it mean for the spirit and the psyche when every utterance is reactionary?
I feel the need to be bold enough to say that the ways in which we interpret the information disseminated by black syndicate media need to be questioned more heartily. My ultimate reflection throughout all of this is that the ways in which we do blackness, the essentialized and narrowing qualities thereof, is quickly getting in the way of us being black. True to my own claim, there may be a beginning dot for this line of reason, but my complicated and complex logic is far from a straight line, it meanders all over the place and I’m unsure of exactly where it ends. For one to discount my meandering logic and emotions around this because it’s not linear would be to not allow room for complexities and complications in the midst of being human; can people not evolve?
I long for the day in which we will not be judged by the content of our Twitter retweets and Facebook likes, but rather by the quality of our critical thinking. Alas, that day may be farther off than we’d like it to be.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL