Macklemore’s Real Problem With Black People

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Imagine a world where…

1. Justin Bieber and Beyonce performed together at a major event

…and…

2. During the show, Beyonce “accidentally” made an obscene gesture that kinda, sorta seemed planned by her and Bieber

…and…

3. When questioned about the gesture, Bieber threw Beyonce under the bus, allowing Beyonce to receive all the negative press by herself

…and…

4. Within the next several years, as Beyonce continued to suffer from the public relations hit, the Black community would begin to embrace Bieber while collectively forgetting about her.

Seems completely far-fetched, right? I’d even say that it was impossible. Like, not f*cking possible in a million Pharrell years. But that would make me a liar. Because this exact thing happened 10 years ago. 

Janet Jackson may not have been as big then as Beyonce is now, but she was close. And Justin Bieber today might not be as big now as Justin Timberlake was then, but he’s close. But those are minor details. The major detail remains the same: Black America collectively “forgave” a 20-something White male for his role in effectively ending the career of a Black music icon.

There are myriad theories for why this was able to happen. You could argue that Janet was already on the downside of her career, and this was just a nail to a coffin that had already started to close. You could argue that the entire controversy was just another example of the double standard for male and female and Black and White performers. You could even say that Janet was blacklisted because she was the one who actually had a body part exposed.

While each theory has some truth to it, none really explain why Black people have been so quick to embrace Timberlake. I mean, he’s on every Black awards show, he works with the best Black artists, and he’s the White celebrity crush for like 17% of Black women.

The answer is simple: Timberlake has talent.

That’s it. Talent is the great neuralyzer; powerful enough to make us forget and forgive anything. It makes us liars and hypocrites. Excusers and enablers. Things we say that really, really, really, really, really matter to us like integrity and loyalty and even racial solidarity stop mattering once someone is talented and cute and makes us laugh with his dick in a box.

He’s cool with us because he’s cool.

Timberlake isn’t the only example of this happening. I’m sure many of us can think of suspect stuff we’ve let slide because of how much we liked a person’s music or movies or pizza. It happens to me, too. Quentin Tarantino has a long history of saying and/or doing racially problematic things, but I look the other way because I love his movies.

All of this helps me understand what’s happening with Macklemore right now.

Macklemore is literally everywhere right now. And by “Macklemore is literally everywhere right now” I mean “Think pieces tying Macklemore to White privilege and disingenuousness and cultural appropriation are literally everywhere right now.” Seriously, on my way to the bathroom earlier, I tripped and fell over a 1,100 word long piece comparing Macklemore to John Boehner and Joseph Caiaphas. It was sleep on the floor. I gave it a granola bar.

He has become both pop culture’s and Black America’s punching bag of the week. I even joined in the fray during the Grammys, tweeting that he was the only Grammy winner where the “get off the stage” music is better than his. 

While the heat he’s receiving now will eventually die down, one thing is certain: He will never, ever, ever, ever receive the same type of embrace from us that Timberlake or even Eminem does. Never, ever, ever, ever. He’s not quite the male Miley Cyrus. But, as far as him symbolizing “everything that’s wrong with the music industry” and “White people stealing shit again”, he might as well be.

Which proves (again) that we’re all hypocrites.

The only thing really separating Justin Timberlake and Eminem and Robin Thicke — all White artists who’ve been embraced by Blacks despite doing and/or saying some racially problematic things — from Macklemore is that we think Macklemore sucks. We don’t diss him because of appropriation or undeserved Grammy wins or Instagrammed messages to Kendrick Lamar. I mean, we say that we do, and we do a very good job of seeming upset about that stuff. But, when you consider that some of the White artists we embrace have done much worse, the Macklemore hate comes down to the fact that we think his music is simple, saccharin, and stupid. If he was a little more talented, a little less awkward, and maybe a little more handsome, we could be convinced to look the other way. But he’s not, so we don’t.

Perhaps you don’t agree. Maybe you believe it’s not just about talent. That Macklemore comes off as fake and Timberlake seems authentic so that’s why we embrace him. And, you know what? I believe you.

Actually, let me rephrase that. I will believe you if you can do one thing for me: Name the last Janet Jackson LP.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Black And Invisible In Pittsburgh

(The Champ’s first Op-ed at The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It’s a response to the Post-Gazette’s recent “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a list whose lone Black representative was a college basketball player.)

“New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., are wonderful cities that can’t resist preening when passing mirrors to remind themselves just how wonderful they are. Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror. It just turns to its buddies and says, “Hey, yinz guys, let’s go have a beer.”

Like many Pittsburghers — native, current, newly transplanted, newly transplanted away — I read the Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel’s ode to our city with pride. Nodding with every laud, my fiancee and I even gave ourselves cool points for our familiarity with many of the venues Noel name-dropped. (Shout out to 720!)

We felt the same spirit when sharing and retweeting Buzzfeed’s “16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is the Greatest City on the Planet” months earlier, and Pitt Girl’s year-end “10 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Owned 2013.”

Although not without its faults, the Burgh has a beauty and character that somehow manages to be both sneaky and striking. It doesn’t just grow on you. It grows in you. And seeing it receive so much national love — so much proof that others finally recognize what’s happening here — is not unlike the feeling a father might have when his daughter’s soccer coach finally notices and acknowledges her hustle.

For black Pittsburghers, though, an annoying bit of ambivalence has a tendency to attach itself to this civic pride. Even as we boast about living in America’s “Most Livable” or “Most Welcoming” city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us.

This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex. When you read “Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror,” you can’t help but continue “ … and it doesn’t see its black people, either.”

There are myriad examples I can cite to prove the truth of that last paragraph; some mere microaggressions, some more serious, but none more apropos than the Post-Gazette’s own “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a piece naming 14 of the Burgh’s burgeoning stars. While the list does a good job of reflecting the city’s occupational diversity, naming one African American — and having that one African American be an 18-year-old college basketball player — is surprising by how utterly unsurprising it was. Basically, it’s typical Pittsburgh.

“As you emerge from the tunnel, you feel you’ve never seen a more majestic little city: old but familiar, with swooping, curving lines, lushly green (in summer) and cut with a deep and expansive racial obliviousness that -spans wide from Point State Park to Point Breeze. This picturesque lack of progress is a sight to behold!”

Now, I’m certain Michael Young the basketball player is a fine young man, and I do not intend to disparage him by saying any of this. But when you have so many talented black artists and black educators and black engineers and black entrepreneurs and black activists and black scientists and black young professionals and black industry titans who contribute to the city’s cultural zeitgeist, neglecting to include any of them on a list like this feels intentional. Not intentionally racist, but intentionally oblivious.

What do I mean by “oblivious”?

Well, let me put it this way: Between contributing writers and editors, there were (at least) a dozen different eyes that had a hand in creating this list. Apparently none of them thought to say “Um, guys. Not to be a stickler or anything, but out of all the black people in Pittsburgh, don’t you think it’s a little odd that the lone black person we named happens to be a basketball player? Feels kinda, um, stereotypical or something, doesn’t it?”

(Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Why We’d Hate Coming To America If It Was Released Today

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Although there are Black movies (“Black movies” = “movies featuring Black people and/or Black stories”) that are better (Malcolm X, Glory, Do The Right Thing, etc), more important (The Color Purple, Shaft, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc), and even funnier (Undercover Brother, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, The Original Kings of Comedy, etc), none are as universally beloved by us as Coming to America. 

While it’s not definitely not loved by every single Black person, there’s no doubt it would appear on more of our favorite’s lists than any other Black film. There’s even less doubt that, if we took a vote, “Queen to Be” could replace “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as our national anthem.

Yet, after re-watching it last weekend for the 367234th time, something dawned on me: If this movie was released in 2014, it would not receive the same love. In fact, many of us would hate it. Not all of us, of course. Many would still enjoy it. But, considering today’s general mood about comedy — where certain types of humor seems to have to pass through a gauntlet of arbitrarily determined standards before considered socially acceptable — there would be so much negative pushback towards it that even the people who loved it would be loathe to publicly admit it.

The pushback would start on Facebook and #blacktwitter weeks before the movie was even released, as word about the plot and the people involved would begin to circulate.

“A White director making a comedy about Africa? #nocountryforoldappropriation”

“Apparently, Arsenio is in a wig during a scene. And a dress. I couldn’t make this sh*t up if I tried. Does everyone in Hollywood hate Black women?”

As the release date neared, and media people started to attend advance screenings, thinkpieces would start to formulate on Slate, The Root, Clutch, EBONY, Jezebel, and (admittedly) VSB.

Coming to America’s Big, Fat Africa Problem: What The Movie Gets Wrong About African Immigrants, And Why It’s So Upsetting 

Queen To Be? Not If She’s Dark: Coming to America’s Disturbing Colorism 

Lisa McDowell, Feminist or Fake?

Homies or Homie/Lover/Friends? Akeem and Semmi’s Very Peculiar Bond

From Mop to Fries in Three Years: On Slave Wages and Cleo McDowell 

Was it Selfish For Eddie and Arsenio To Play Multiple Characters Instead of Hiring More Black Actors?

By the time the movie was set to be released, there would be so many petitions and protests against it that the studio would pull it from the theaters. WorldStarHipHop would buy the rights to it, replace Shari Headley and Allison Dean with Erica Mena and Dutchess from Black Ink, and release it in six 15 minute long installments on their site.

I don’t know if there would be a sequel. Perhaps there would be one 14 years after the original film was released. Who knows? I don’t.

I do know, though, that no one would ever sing “Queen to Be” at their wedding.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Why There Will Never Be A Black Male Olivia Pope

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You know, I do sympathize with those annoyed by how Scandal (and, more recently, Being Mary Jane) seems to dominate the conversation in Black digital spaces. I can imagine it being even more nerve-wracking for people who have no interest in either show. Thing is, the place they have in our cultural zeitgeist is less about the show itself than the fact that, while people may not know an Olivia Pope or a Mary Jane Paul (or aspire to be either), they represent a version (well, an extreme version) of an archetype very many Black people seem to relate to: the “successful woman who seems to have it all together, but doesn’t.” Ultimately, the meta-conversations about these shows allow us to talk about ourselves without talking about ourselves.

Yet, the conversation is incomplete. There is another archetype. An archetype that seems to cause much of the angst our other archetype struggles with. This one is found in the same cities, the same Twitter timelines, the same offices, the same lounges, and even (occasionally) the same beds as our Pope-ly protagonists, but they don’t receive nearly as much cinematic or conversational deconstruction. This lack of attention isn’t due to a lack of interest, though. People (and by “people” I mean “Black women”) are very interested in what is going on in the head of the “single and successful Black male” what drives/motivates him, why he makes the decisions he makes, where love and commitment fall on his personal needs hierarchy, etc. But no one actually wants to see it on screen.

I can imagine it now…

It would star someone relatively young and realistically attractive like Columbus Short or Rob Brown or Derek Luke. The show would be set in D.C. or Chicago. He’d be a lawyer or an engineer or something. He’d have a nice loft. And, while the show wouldn’t just be about his dating life, his dating life would be a big part of the show. He’d date. A lot. Some wouldn’t even be dates. Sometimes it would just be 11:32 pm “hey, do you want to come through?” texts. On Wednesday nights. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be a “hey, do you want to” attached to “come through.”

He’d always be very nice to women. Well, “nice” in that he didn’t talk bad about them, he remained (somewhat) chivalrous, he had many very close female friends, he’d always be affectionate and attentive to them, and he’d make a point to let everyone know how much he loves sistas with natural hair. But the niceness is only a surface niceness. He claims to feel bad when women he “dates” catch unrequited feelings for him, but he actually only feels bad when forced to confront their feelings. Worst of all, he knows what he’s doing. He’s too smart not to. He’s just selfish. Very selfish. He wants to settle down, eventually. When he meets the right person. At least that’s what he tries to tell himself. But he’d continue doing what he’s doing, with no real end in sight.

and no one would watch this show.

Actually, let me rephrase that. We’d watch. But everyone would hate it. Black men would hate it for misrepresenting us and/or airing our dirty laundry. Black women would hate it because, while it’s easy to mock the Stevie J’s and the Peter Gunz’s of the world (and the women who deal with them), a show featuring their urban and educated counterparts would hit too close to home. Black people (collectively) would hate it for reinforcing the hyper-hetero sexual stereotypes about Black men. White women would hate it because, if it were to mirror the life of a real actual single Black man in D.C. or Chicago, he’d date nothing but Black women, and they (White women) would be pissed for not being included. There’d be a thinkpiece a week at Jezebel devoted to it. White men would hate it because…well, I can’t think of any reasons why they would. They’d probably love it.

I’m joking (well, kinda), but I don’t think I’m that far from the truth. Pretty much every other oft-discussed piece of the Black population has been explored in some way on TV. Upper class families. Working class families. Single women. People in the hood. Young parents. Young couples. But none from the perspective of a single and successful urban Black male who dates Black women. (That last tidbit disqualifies Kevin Hill and House of Lies)

And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’d want to watch it either. Sure, I’d watch to be a part of the conversation. And to nitpick stuff the show didn’t get “right.” But I’d probably cringe the entire time. Or, more likely, I’d vacillate between cringing and jumping on Twitter, Facebook, VSB and everywhere else I write to defend all the indefensible shit the main character was doing.

Of course I’d be telling on myself if I did that. The show would be far from a mirror image of my life — it would be much too extreme for that — but I’d see enough of him in me and other guys I know to be compelled to comment. Of course I’d deny the connections, though. And I wouldn’t be wrong. I mean, it’s “just entertainment,” right?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

We (Black People) Have No Idea What Complexion Any Of Us Are (…And This Bothers Me Very Much)

Don't ask.

Don’t ask.

I’ve tried already. Twice, actually. I’d try again if I thought something would come of it. But, I know it won’t. So I won’t. I know it will never happen. I have no hope. I am hopeless. Devoid of hope. Hope deficient.

But, despite this hope abyss, I can’t help but be bothered by its presence. It is my albatross. The thumb in my eye. The fly in my cheese. The Big Sean in my speakers. And it reared its ugly head again yesterday afternoon.

I was on Facebook, killing time and editing old status messages, when I came across a hundred comment-long thread on a friend’s page about Kerry Washington’s recent Lucky cover. Apparently, it’s not the most flattering picture of everyone’s favorite Bougie Black Girl, and the first 30 or so comments in the thread were related to that.

Then, it happened.

Someone made a reference to Kerry being “browner” on that cover than she usually is. Someone else responded by saying that she actually is that brown. Then, someone else responded by saying that she is actually light-skinned, and most magazine covers go out of their way to make her seem darker. Then, someone else responded with “one dark-skinned sister gets some Hollywood love, and ya’ll trying to say she’s yellow?” Then someone else responded that she’s actually “brown skinned, not dark brown skinned.” Then one of my testicles disappeared for spending too much time in that thread. I still haven’t found it.

Perhaps it’s just another unfortunate byproduct of the lasting effects of colonization, slavery, discrimination, and Erica Mena. Maybe we’re just so varied in hue that we defy any type of complexion consensus. And maybe I’m the only person who gives a fuck about any of this. But, I will forever be haunted by the fact that Black people (collectively) have no idea what color any of us are. There is no concord. No agreement. No concession. Just haphazard guessing. Pisses in the wind. Stabs in the dark. Or, more appropriately, stabs in the dark-brown.

Despite centuries of practice, paper bag tests, colors named after candy, and Delta conventions, none of us seem to know the difference between brown, or dark-brown, or light-skinned, or light-brown, or light, or dark, or…

…you know what? Fuck it. If ya’ll don’t care anymore, neither will I. Figure this shit out on your own. Call Drake dark-brown and Nia Long yellow. Continue to pretend that Beyonce and Jay Z aren’t the exact same color. Argue with your sister when she calls you light-skinned (despite the fact that you are), and raise your hand in the club when the DJ shouts out dark brothas (despite the fact that you’re not).

Just make sure that when you refer to me, you get it right and call me a dark-brown-brown skinned shade under a bite-sized almond Snicker bar. With chocolate sprinkles. Don’t forget the fucking chocolate sprinkles.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)