When did it happen? Was it when “Richard Pryor’s blues-based life experience humor gave way to Eddie Murphy’s telegenic, pop-culture–oriented joking”? Or was it when “DJs began rocking Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ ”?
In the March 17, 1992, issue of the Voice, contributor Nelson George surveyed the “post-soul” landscape and discovered that, “as a musical genre, a definition of African American culture, and the code word for our national identity, soul has pretty much been dead since Nixon’s reelection in 1972. But what’s replaced it? Arguing in these pages in 1986, Greg Tate tried to establish a ‘new black aesthetic’ as a defining concept. He had a point, though I’d argue there was more than one aesthetic at work. For better and worse, the spawn of the postsoul era display multiple personalities.”
Indeed, over seventeen pages George explores a broad spectrum of post-soul black aesthetics, and the Voice’s art department helped with diptychs comparing and contrasting Malcolm X to KRS-One and Muhammad Ali and Bundini Brown to Chuck D and Flavor Flav, as well as triptychs of Lisa Bonet and Magic Johnson. The amped-up graphic treatment was necessary to keep pace with the sweep of George’s essay: “Which brings us back to our search for the source of this transition — for the single event that first engaged all these aesthetic, class, and economic issues. After considerable equivocation, I’ve decided that my starting point is a renegade work that, like many pivotal expressions throughout history, has only been encountered by a small percentage of the folks it affected.…When Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadassss Song came out in 1971, nothing like it had appeared on an American movie screen before. The depiction of a Watts-based male hustler’s act of rebellion against brutal police and subsequent flight to freedom ‘was an important moment in the evolution of black cinema which involved redefinition and initial statement of a willingness to act against one’s fate in America,’ according to veteran black filmmaker St. Clair Bourne.”
George goes on to observe, “Sweetback’s ghettocentric style, outsider perspective, and financially independent spirit still reverberate in two crucial African American artistic movements — hip hop and black film. Sweetback defied the positive-image canon of Sidney Poitier, dealing openly with black sexuality, government-sanctioned brutality, and the arbitrary violence of inner city life. Its refusal to compromise still sparks black artists from Ice Cube to Matty Rich.”
After the essay comes a sumptuously illustrated fourteen-page “Time Line to Postsoul Black Culture” (1971–1991). Black History Month may be the shortest month of the year (landing there largely because it grew out of Negro History Week, which celebrated both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, on the 12th and 14th, respectively), but you could do worse than spend a big chunk of it revisiting the time line’s list of cultural highlights. Many, many celebs, politicians, actors, activists, athletes, and artists get shout-outs in the time line, including the gorgeous Pam Grier in 1973’s Coffy, the tenacious Shirley Chisholm in Congress, the atmospheric neorealism of Charles Burnett’s beautifully filmed Killer of Sheep, Grace Jones celebrating “the bisexual and campy black gay aesthetic” at Studio 54 in 1978, black quarterback Doug Williams leading the Washington Redskins to a triumph in the 1987 Super Bowl, and the 1989 debut of In Living Color on Fox. The time line also reminds us of less than positive events that occurred during those two decades, with this entry coming near the end: “Neocon Clarence Thomas, nominated to succeed civil rights warrior Thurgood Marshall, is confirmed as the second black to serve on the Supreme Court by the smallest margin in history after he’s almost derailed by law professor Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment. Never has America seen so many real-life Buppies on TV. Unfortunately, they’re all Republicans.”
Take a ride back to the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly — and a whole lot more from back in the day that helps us understand where we are now. —The Voice Archives
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 15, 2019