I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been a fan of Aisha Harris. (Three years, maybe?) But I do know that the 27-year-old staff writer at Slate has been a personal favorite long enough for me to confidently state that she is the shit. (Also, I can confidently state that she is not Aisha Tyler.) With degrees from Northwestern and NYU and a background in theater, the Hamden, CT native’s breadth of pop culture knowledge is so impressive that if “Aisha Harris’ breadth of pop culture knowledge” was a person, I’d totally take “Aisha Harris’ breadth of pop culture knowledge” to bottomless brunch with me.
Naturally, she was the perfect choice to debut Writing Ass Chicks We Love — a new VSB feature where we have conversations with, um, writing ass chicks we love.
As one of the last remaining inhabitants of Kanye West Island, I have many job titles. Deputy mayor, high school basketball coach, cabaret bouncer, junior pastor, Chipotle franchisee etc. I am a man with many hats. One of these hats demand that I take island attendance every couple months or so to see who’s still here.
I’m lazy, though, so I don’t always enjoy going door to door. Instead I’ll just ask. Are you still on Kanye West Island?
Harris: Have you seen ‘Ye lately? Because I don’t even think he’s still on Kanye West Island. The poor guy waded out to sea at the VMAs with nothing but his haze-filled confidence, and got caught up in the swift currents of gobbledegook and “fresh juice” not long after. I don’t think I was born yet the first time the world caught on that MJ had, at least psychologically, passed the point of no return — that was when he started carrying around Bubbles and the little kid that played Webster, right? — because, unlike, Kanye, I’m actually a millennial. But I think we’ve reached peak Yeezy season and may never make it back. He’s officially fulfilled all of the wacky, feverish, instantly quotable dreams he’s promised us ever since he first uttered that Dubya doesn’t care about Black people while Mike Myers turned a ghastly shade of pale. Everything he does from here, artistically, publicly, or what have you, will be just a bit of a let down.
All that being said, I’ve still got one foot left on Kanye West Island, at least from a musical standpoint. And I think somewhere in that speech, and a lot of what he says in general, there are some smart, real truths that he brings to the table about artistry and appreciating Black creativity. I only wish that his public arguments were half as meticulously crafted as his music is. If there’s anything that speech reiterated, it’s that the man is his own worst enemy, and he needs to paddle himself back to shore, stat.
I still think we haven’t reached Peak Kanye, because we haven’t yet heard a Peak Kanye album. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes closest conceptually and musically, but it would have been even better if he spent less time on the last half of it apologizing and channeled more of the id found on “Hell of a Life” and Yeezus. But yeah, a Peak Kanye album — and the critical/commercial praise that would accompany it — would produce Peak Public Kanye. Can you imagine what a finally validated Kanye West would be like? He’d be Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch, but on everyone’s couch. Which would really suck for people with white couches.
Anyway, I thought one of the more interesting parts of Kanye’s speech was him considering himself a millennial. Because, he is not a millennial. I get why he feels this way, though. He’s a few years old than me, but we’re part of the same generation; a bit too old to be a millennial, but not quite old enough to really be a part of Generation X. Is there an appropriate name for people born between 1976 and 1982, Aisha “My last name is Harris, not Tyler” Harris, or are we doomed to float in a label-less ether?
Harris: Maybe we’ve seen Peak Public Kanye already, and his next album is the one that means Peak Musical Kanye? Maybe he knows we’re all going to kiss his ass when he finally drops his Paul McCartney-laden masterpiece, and this is just him preparing us for the greatest album of all time. Because he’s a motherf***ing genius.
I could’ve sworn that you guys were generation Y? I vaguely remember there being a ’90s Time or Newsweek magazine cover story about it, featuring some weird looking pre-teen White kids looking sulky. I could be completely wrong, though. Generations don’t make much sense to me. At work, we keep getting younger and younger interns and they’re still considered millennials. And yet, they missed the 15-month period when Spice Girls ruled the world and when you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “My Heart Will Go On.” (Practically all the girls in my 5th grade class, with the exception of us two Black girls, owned Titanic t-shirts. And wore them to school every day for several months.)
Basically what I’m saying is that generations, like decades, are super arbitrary, and virtually figments of our imaginations. Yes, there are shared experiences that may bond us if we were of a certain age when major historical stuff went down, like a war or catastrophic event, but the lines can blur easily around pretty much everything else. Kanye’s imagination happens to reach realms most people will never see, and in his mind, he’s a millennial. I hope whoever gets his next interview asks him about this specifically. They will likely tell him he’s not, in fact, a millennial, and then he’ll scream about how confident he is and break out into “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.”
I do vaguely recall a Generation Y moniker that lasted about as long as Pepsi Blue. But that’s the point. It’s easy for you to discount the importance of belonging to a widely-recognized generation because you belong to one. Your millennial bonafides and resume will never be questioned. You’ll never live with the unsettledness of not knowing which generation you truly belong to. Basically, you have generation privilege, and you need to acknowledge that. #allgenerationsmatter
You bring up a good point, though, with the Titanic t-shirts. In terms of how certain cultural touchstones often assumed to be universal are actually a bit more narrow. As a Black woman who covers and deconstructs pop culture for a mainstream publication, how does that — the difference between the assumed universal experience and your own experience — impact your writing? (If at all.)
Harris: If there’s one thing I’ve discovered having written for Slate for almost four years now, it’s that the “universal experience” is not actually a real thing, unless, to paraphrase an old adage, we’re talking about popping out of the womb, dying, or paying taxes. (“Even that last one is iffy,” Wesley Snipes once quipped long, long ago.) I consider myself a pretty well-rounded individual when it comes to pop culture, and I’d like to think I am more so than most, considering it’s my job. But my blind spots are tested on a daily basis at work, when unexpected news events or new movies or albums, or books come out, and there’s a chance for someone at Slate to respond to them. For instance, I knew White people loved Seinfeld and Friends, but I didn’t realize just how much they–and Slate readers, especially–LOVE Seinfeld and Friends. Now, I passed on those in the ’90s (mostly because I was too young the first time around), and have never had any interest in trying to binge-watch since, based on the few episodes of each I’ve seen. So, depending upon who on our culture team is available at any given moment and on their knowledge of said cultural item, when something does come up that’s Seinfeld or Friends, etc.-related, I’m likely not going to write on it, and someone else will. And vice versa. That’s one of the advantages of our team, though–we have a nice mixture of areas of interest and/or expertise that overlap in some ways and not in others, and on any given day each of us might find a news peg to indulge in them. Things that I’ve often been tapped to write about due to my interests include: Movie tropes, Community (RIP), and Key & Peele (RIP x2!).
On the more personal side, I’ve had many occasions to bring my perspective as one of the only Black female staffers on Slate to our readers who may not otherwise encounter it elsewhere, and that’s something I’m happy to do. More often than not, it’s through “mainstream” cultural things that everyone’s ostensibly already talking about, or at least aware of–like writing about how Lena Dunham having no people of color in big roles on the first season of Girls makes sense, or how Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is the perfect protest song (and my jam). I write these things not so much as an “educational” tool for our heavily White, liberal audience — though sometimes, that is the case — but as a way of unpacking what they mean to me.
On occasion, there may be a reference I think of that I want to throw in to a piece — often, that reference is from the TV biopic The Temptations — but I know that, unlike with “Winter is coming,” or “I’m the one who knocks,” most Slate readers ain’t gonna get it.
Are there any recognizable references from the Temptations movie other than “Aint no one coming to see you, Otis!“? (Poor Otis.) I consider my literacy levels of Black-ass shit to be somewhere between “moderately high” and “Paul Mooney,” but I can’t think of anything else I’d cite in regular conversation. Are you attempting to out-Black me, Aisha?
Harris: I don’t think there’s any way for me to out-Black you. And now that you mention it, yes — that is the most quotable part of the movie, by far. I guess I only ever want to throw out “Ain’t nobody…,” probably because there are an infinite number of situations where that phrase is appropriate. Now, The Jacksons: An American Dream, on the other hand, has lots more quotable lines. (“Go to bed, Joseph! GO. TO. BED!” “No no no no no, I don’t wantchu no mo’…”)