Who Is the Black Messiah? A Conversation About Race and Activism in Pop Music

From Beyoncé's "Formation" video, released February 2016EXPAND
From Beyoncé's "Formation" video, released February 2016

The anxiety and reality of having to dissect all this blackness in a sensible, meaningful way through words is paralyzing. How do you capture the detail and the overwhelming visibility of invisibility? Can you do the blackness justice? Can he? Can I? 
— Clover Hope, "The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly"

NYU’s Gallatin school celebrated Black History Month by coordinating a series of lectures, film screenings, live podcasts, and panel discussions free to both students and the public. "Dismantling the Master’s House: The Spectrum of Black Activism" included eight events held throughout the month, ending on Thursday, February 25.

The closing event, a panel discussion called Who Is the Black Messiah?, focused on the conversation surrounding contemporary black musical culture, as well as the experience of being black in America— specifically as it concerns police brutality and racial violence, as well as the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The panel highlighted the work of black scholars and thought leaders from a variety of outlets and disciplines, covering a spectrum ranging from faculty (Gallatin assistant professor Kwami Coleman) to famous (cult rapper Junglepussy). They were joined by Jezebel staff writer Clover Hope, and Jason King, a professor in the Clive Davis music program at Tisch.

Moderated by Flavorwire music editor Matthew Ismael Ruiz, the panel opened with a multimedia presentation of recent televised musical performances by black artists, in major arenas, considered controversial by "conservative" (that’s American for racist) white viewers: Beyoncé’s fiery Black Panther tribute at the Super Bowl and Kendrick Lamar’s overtly-political-but-noticeably-censored medley at this year’s Grammys.

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When these artists attempt activism, they’re often criticized: How radical or controversial can they be, when they benefit from capitalism in so many ways? More often than not, critiques tend to be skewed when it comes to gender, focusing on Beyoncé and other female artists while glossing over similar situations involving male performers (especially strange when you factor in the fact that black women still make so much less money than almost any other demographic overall, a truth that went unmentioned).

After espousing the inclusive beauty of "Formation," highlighting black performers from transgressive queer backgrounds like the reigning queen of New Orleans bounce music, Big Freedia, Professor King explained what may be the source of his and others’ hesitance to accept Beyoncé’s relationship with branding.

"The problem for me, with 'Formation,' is that in today's sort of diminished music economy where artists have so few ways to make money — record sales are down, record labels aren't functioning the way they used to, they’re conglomerated, there’s so few that work — one of the ways that artists make money is by branding themselves, or forming partnerships with corporations…I think part of the issue is that a lot of the black power political stuff that we’re seeing right now is so interspersed with that commercialism and branding.

"When she’s talking about being a Bill Gates in the song, and the song is all about acquisitiveness and buying, I find that deeply problematic. When you look at it historically, a lot of the great artists who engaged in political protest in their music — whether it’s Gil Scott-Heron or Curtis Mayfield — were not complicit with corporations in that way. They knew how to make a critique of the corporations, because corporations are part of the system that keeps people poor."

After citing Beyoncé’s push for black female visibility and her insistence on representation, Professor Coleman also reminded the audience of Beyoncé's extreme humility when it comes to social activism.

"Beyoncé’s given millions of dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement," he reminded us. "I think we often try to extract that from her work. But she’s actually been highly involved. I think part of the reason she doesn’t like to publicize it as much is because the focus becomes on her and not on the families of people who’ve been slain by police officers."

Clover Hope, having recently written on that exact anxiety — the need to process and internalize powerful images of what she’s termed 'overwhelming blackness' at such a rapid pace — was primed to lead an insightful discussion about Beyoncé’s impact.

"You don’t get to see that amount of black women at a major sporting event at halftime, having this message of black solidarity and black women together, looking very black with the Afros, and doing black dances. I think that was the major message that people got out of that performance, intrinsically. For black people watching, it was a feeling like, why am I so proud? You’re naturally proud of that type of image, even as you dissect the competing message of capitalism that she’s putting forth. I think people sometimes underestimate the power of a powerful photo or visual."

Issues of capitalism and branding are complicated; as Junglepussy explained, it isn’t always easy to reconcile your public image as a black female musician with the subconscious (or blatant) racism experienced throughout your life. When asked about her performance wardrobe, she distinctly mentioned growing up wearing bright colors, as she was raised to believe the spectrum of browns and tans to be ugly and unflattering. Only later, she said, after years of seeing images of people with a diversity of skin tones, did she begin to focus her own appearance around colors of the earth.

Citing comments made during a previous speaking appearance at Yale, "JP," as she is sometimes affectionately called, talked the audience through her transformation. She "was a private-school kid. My uniform was brown and yellow, so I wanted to get away from that as much as possible on the weekend. But I really didn’t like the color brown, and I never thought about it until now that I’m older. I really avoided this color, one, because of [my private-school] uniform, and two, because I felt like brown was just an ugly color. And I’m so embarrassed to even say that because now I love it so much, and I have so much respect for my skin color and all the various tones of brown skin."

Continuing the conversation about blackness and the image, in what ended up being one of the most nuanced and affecting moments of the evening, Hope, a hawk-eyed analyst who produces critical content for a variety of culture websites, asked us to focus specifically on both the arrow formed by Beyoncé and her squad, and the concept to which that arrow points.

"When [the dancers] formed the arrow — that formation, things like that, having this army of black faces — a lot of these artists, the power that comes in their songs is the blackness of it itself. That’s the basic power in it. The invisibility of these types of images make them that much more impactful."

One would be remiss, of course, to analyze these powerful images outside the context of their source. After revisiting a famous recording of Nina Simone introducing her song "Young, Gifted and Black" by reminding the audience that the song isn’t against white people —it simply ignores us in favor of uplifting members of her community — the panel was asked about perspective and inclusion.

Again, Junglepussy summed it up best: "I’ve tried to make my writing more universal, but it always comes down to my perspective as a black woman."


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