A while back a reader wrote me trying to refute my claim that if Saturday Night Live wanted to keep up with the times it needed diversity to stay relevant.
I don’t know whether this individual was black or white. But I got the feeling they were black but woefully ignorant of “America’s Love Affair with Black Culture.” Their emailed response to me was that black people – and by extension “Black American Culture” – are not relevant because non-black people “don’t get it.” This was after I used Beyonce, Michelle Obama, Oprah, the TV shows “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Lil Wayne and the NBA as examples of how ubiquitous certain facets of black art, black culture, black people and black artists have become in the pop culture mainstream. Their argument was that our culture was a niche, a black niche, that pretty much only operates on a frequency that only people with permanent tans can hear.
I could believe this if it weren’t for the fact that right now pop music is amuck with various “swagger jackers” appropriating the most outré variations of black culture (basically, all the parts you can’t take to church on Sunday), repacking it poorly with lazy facsimiles then mass producing it for the culturally and historically ignorant. I could also believe this if “The Chappelle Show” had never existed. It was a show my old upstairs neighbors, who were both white males, loved intensely, but admitted that they did not get the vast majority of the jokes. I’m pretty much convinced that’s what made Chappelle abandon the show – white people happily enjoying black culture in full ignorance of what they are watching, lapping it up without context, then shouting “I’m Rick James, bitch” (often while having no clue of who Rick James was),
You don’t exactly have to be “from the streets” to appreciate Lil Wayne, Lil B or any of the “Lil’s.” In fact, they need you need to not be from the streets. They have to sell those albums to somebody. If black rappers were solely relying on the violently romanticized black underclass to fund their lifestyles Kanye would be rapping more about Harold’s Chicken and less Harrods.
Black American culture has always been in style. Always. Whether it came in its classic, noble form of Paul Robeson singing a Negro Spiritual or if it came in the blackface form of Al Jolson singing “Mammy.” Black artists innovate, create, remix, reproduce and people consume it … although certain audiences have “certain” preferences. It’s no knock to Robin Thicke, Eminem or Macklemore, (whose albums I own) but for certain clueless consumers they might as well all be Pat Boone, a way to like something black without actually crediting any black people. Like they’re Diet Coke, but maybe they’re Diet Coke with lime.
(At least they’re not Boone. Boone is so inherently dissimilar from the artists he “recreated” that he’s not even trying to pass off Coke as Diet Coke. He’s not even Pepsi. He’s the Diet Mr. Pibb of appropriation. Heck, he’s so opposite day, he might as well be a can of Fresca. Here he is taking all the funk out of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to the point that it kind of makes me want to vomit off-brand Skittles.)
If people tell you they’re not interested in “black” people because we’re a “niche” what they really mean is this haircut would look better on Miley Cyrus. It’s about control. Everyone likes black people if they get to “control” the image, if that image of blackness is taken out of our hands and reduced to what is most profitable. There aren’t a lack of black TV shows and sitcoms today because white people won’t watch them . (“The Jeffersons” and “The Cosby Show” didn’t stay on the air during an even less diverse time because only Decatur, Ga. was watching.) You can get a black show on the air right now if you’re willing to produce the image of black people that gatekeepers want to see. Unsurprisingly since the entertainment industry’s gatekeepers are overwhelming old, white and male, what they “think” Americans want to see is pretty retrograde.
It’s not disinterest that ruins our image in popular culture. It’s that there is almost too much interest in us. And, as a result, we are reduced us to a mess of stereotypes and butt-jiggling. We’re more complex than that, but complexity doesn’t sell. Butt-jiggling, on the other hand, has been en vogue since before Josephine Baker strapped on the banana skirt. Since Sara Baartman was kidnapped and put on display throughout Europe. The only difference is between then and now we have more opportunity to own our image and control it. You can have black writers, actors and directors like Steve McQueen (who’s black and British) and they can create “12 Years of Slave” and it’s an extremely different (and more grounded) work than the pop art of Quinten Tarantino’s Mandigo fantasy “Django Unchained.”
Or you can have former NBA player wife Shaunie O’Neil creating a revenue streams for her recently dumped friends!
You can own your image. But there’s already an established audience for watching “black people being ridiculous.” It’s profitable. It’s been profitable since “Beulah.” Since “Sleep n’ Eat.” For some, it’s too lucrative to move from caricature into creation and control. So you stick with what works and put a new spin on an old trope.
The problem has always been that when we wanted to be seen as individuals with our own wants and desires, when we want to create art that reflects that, some people – mainly the culturally ignorant and racists – have no desire to see it. So it’s not about white people not getting a black joke. Most people LOVE a black joke. What they don’t like is conscious black thought rooted in self-determination.
Fortunately for SNL (or for most of Hollywood for that matter), they aren’t in the “conscious black thought” business, but entertainment, something black and white Americans have enjoyed watching black folks do since Pigmeat Markum. So they should do quite fine if they ever diversify their ranks.
Whether black people retain any ownership or control remains to be seen.