A friend of mine whom I hadn’t talked to in a little while reached out to me via text message in a low moment, and simply said “black people fucked up.” This isn’t an abnormal way for he (who is also black) and I to start a conversation, but I was none the less taken aback and asked for clarity. “Black people are fucked up, or black people or are fucking up?” I asked, because as far as I was concerned, an entire people can’t fuck up. Especially a people — black people — who exist under constant duress, sustained by a system that they did not create. Institutions can “fuck up”, individuals can, groups who subscribe to certain ideologies can, but not entire peoples.
This then lead us down a path to a predictable conversation about identity and respectability politics, individual responsibility, power — or having a seat at the table, as he put it. Also the duality of the black temperament A.K.A. the Malcom vs Martin problem. I pressed, and asked him what exactly he meant by “having a seat at the table”. Essentially, he was frustrated that black people were being too docile (a common argument in black conservative circles) and not fighting hard enough for their “seat”. My friend is not only black, but a first generation African immigrant who grew up in one of the whitest, wealthiest municipalities in the country, right outside of Washington D.C. (not so unlike where I grew up). I have to constantly take this into consideration when we have these chats. Those two perspectives often exist at odds with each other.
In 2017 when the series Atlanta won their second Golden Globe, Donald Glover didn’t leave the stage without thanking the city of Atlanta and the black folks that live there for being alive, but specifically Atlanta rap trio Migos (“The Migos”) . This was incredibly profound for me. Up until that moment my feelings about Donald Glover were warm to cold, to non-existent. I enjoyed his character on Community and had lukewarm appreciation for his standup. But it was my disdain for his music as Childish Gambino that really colored my thoughts of him. For no good reason. But at the the time when he released his first album I was exiting college, and the only people who seemed to be obsessed with him were white college kids. This — immaturely — complicated things for me. Like Chappelle, I think I was more mad that he would allow himself to be the fodder for frat bros. But my opinion was limited because I never gave any of his music the time of day until his most recent, and final album as Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love!
In this time, Community had become a distant memory, living on in the pop consciousness as obscure memes. Glover’s new television project though Atlanta had garnered immense critical acclaim — something else I’m naturally suspicious of. He also announced that at 31, he was killing his Childish Gambino persona. I suppose I had grown a bit too — and softened — because I listened to his album a few times and did not immediately gag. Quite the contrary, actually. This then made me curious, so I explored the strange universe of Atlanta all at once. And I fell in love.
I have written this many times before, that entertainment — but hip hop specifically— has been the primary delivery system for black philosophy, culture, art and history (outside of books) to the wider world. It has been the carrier service for messages to marginalized black folks the world over. It has been an escape route from abject poverty and violence. And a release valve for a people those who otherwise would might be pushed to the edge. Hip Hop, almost forty years on, has remained the most pervasive art form to come out of the experiment that is United States. It is truly the people’s music. It represents all of the flaws, joys, pain, love and triumphs of the people that create it.
As the generation that first decried hip hop ages out of the conversation, A new set of voices have emerged, holding rap music on a pedestal as the one art form that literally advocates for, is a linear cause of black death. Whilst simultaneously being lauding it’s elders as pillars of black achievement. Not just achievement, but Black achievement, as if it was something else entirely. Take the most damning example of this, Barack Obama. Yes, being the first African American President is a singular to him. And he is an exceptional human being by all measures. But what was truly exceptional was that the majority of a country — who less than fifty years earlier, did not allow black people to vote — thought it appropriate to let a black man run the country for eight years. We all know the history now, and we also know Barack Obama only had this opportunity because he was a the black analog of a set acceptable cultural norms defined by a white society. That is, he was a Lawyer, Harvard graduate, likes to golf, married (to a lawyer) with two beautiful, angelic, straight haired children and a dog. I admit that is a very macro view of the Obamas, but you have to understand that white people had to see their best selves in them too.
Not unlike my friend, Barack Obama also has two dueling identities that shaped his view of things, especially his opinion of other black people. The point of view that my friend and the former President share is not just one of a black person with a conflict over their identity within that structure, but that it is also deeply one of the middle class. Something that — until recently — was a noble virtue attributed to white people. However, if you’re black and middle class, this was a profound accomplishment — an exception rather than the rule — but we were always reminded that you could always be one missed car payment, layoff, or catastrophic injury away from the projects.
I too have fallen into this way of thinking from time to time. As a professional music person, I have taken the position that music and the culture attached to it, particularly surrounding groups like Migos, at best, is bad or lazy. And in my worst thoughts, are a caricature devaluing us as a people. But this is precisely the thinking and identity politicking that is so toxic and pervasive. And wouldn’t exist if Blackness in this context wasn’t just something to compare to other things. This has also made me feel like loving Plain Jane is some dirty secret. This is all is a result of my own struggles with identity. Navigating between the poles of not really giving a fuck, to being debilitatingly self conscious about my aesthetic choices as it relates to being a black man. And a lot of the time, being the only black person in a room. And this isn’t just me, for many minorities, this type of behavior isn’t just a manifestation of low self esteem, but it is necessary self preservation and survival.
The conversation with my friend reminded me about Donald Glover thanking Migos because in a world where another Donald is trying to turn back the hands of time where songs like “I’m Black and I’m Proud” were not only true, but absolutely necessary. Glover standing on stage, accepting an accolade from an institution that has historically ignored black creators, chooses to unironically thank some rappers. Acknowledging that The Migos were not only material to his creativity, but material to a much broader conversation of what Black Excellence is and where it belongs. And this caused some controversy. He later in an interview called Migos The Beatles. Not like The Beatles, but The Beatles. (Which would later prove to be a prophetic statement.) He put it in terms everyone can understand.
Today, despite being in a true renaissance period of black art and consciousness, I am worrisome that black people are being put right back into that same place of despair that we have been trying to escape since the birth of the nation. Not because of anything we’ve done, but because in spite of our evolution, the world around us refuses to change. I realized that my criticisms of Donald Glover, and my unwillingness to acknowledge Migos and their contemporaries and equal representations of black excellence was misguided. Black Excellence for so long has been defined along the lines of being an analog of something that can only really exist for white people. Thus creating this insurmountable emotional obstacle that no amount of money, success, or acknowledgment can satisfy. There are very real obstacles that black people, as a people, have to overcome. So there is no longer a reason to define black success as if it were something wholly different. It is just — success. Our success, our joy, our excellence. To be defined by no one else.