Edward Ademolu discusses why black artists have to become their own PR machines
Speaking to The New Yorker, the Grammy-award-winning musician, and actor, acclaimed writer and progressively hyphenated renaissance man – Donald Glover, recently proclaimed:
“I feel like Jesus”.
Far from being satisfied by the humblest of pies, when asked by the interviewer whether there was anything he was “bad” at, he gorged on a double helping of:
“To be honest, no, […] I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work – but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left.”
While hard to imagine – or perhaps not, Glover is not alone with his Rene Descartes-imbued “I think therefore, I am” orientation. This patterning of bound-ary-less, unashamed grandiosity and self-affirmation is discernible in, among and by, other black ethnic minorities in entertainment and contemporary popular culture. Celebrities, musicians, media professionals, public officials -both famed and infamous – who think nothing of stepping into themselves fully, unapologetically plunging headfirst into their watered egos, or tight-roping (unharnessed of course) the thin line between banal narcissism and ingenuity. Take for instance, the presumed mysticism and unparalleled strength and resilience of black people in the popularised social media movement, “Black Girl Magic” (#BlackGirlMagic), and it’s male equivalent “Black Boy Joy” (#BlackBoyJoy). Hashtag campaigns of virulent and forward-thrusting force – much to the disdain, perplexity and misconstrual of some non-black, largely white critics – with the former founded by black feminist writer CaShawn Thompson in 2013 and the latter by rap sensation ‘Chance The Rapper’. Both backed by a slew of black Hollywood’s “Whos who” including President Barack and Michelle Obama and Hip-Hop aficionado Diddy, sharing – and encouraging others to share – images, videos and commentary that celebrate and bask unremittingly, in the divinity of their blackness and “black-selfhood”
Similarly, it is lyrically immortalised by Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z, in lines such as:
“I’m not a Businessman, I’m a Business, Man.”
This, his rhythmic pronouncement – social optic manifesto – to his fans, musical rivals and the world at large, that he is the physical embodiment of the rose-coloured glasses that you and I are reminded to take off. That is, he is not merely a “businessman”, fray-cuffed-suited and indistinguishable from the 9-5 horde. Rather, he is a business itself – the name, brand, music, fashion and lifestyle packaged into one bespoke “being” that Shawn Carter (Jay-Z’s government name) manages.
It is also possessed by Nigerian-American self-styled provocateur Kehinde Wiley – the go-to-painter for the Black celebretariat (and man behind Obama’s official portrait) – in his deliberately imposing, and thematically-inversive, “larger-than-life-size” portraits, of black-and-brown folk. Superimposed in, and historicised by, European symbolisms of regality, aristocracy and religious majesticism.
Whether that’s a bandana-wearing portly man, astride his steed, or the laurel wreath-haloed urbanite, or perhaps the cornrowed street-Urchin draped across potpourri bedding. This foregrounding – the “in-your-face” central-staging – of mahoganied figures in classical art, imposes some notion of a warped-temporality – a revisionist history – that is both calculated and necessary – in Kehinde’s repositioning of an often unarticulated, reified Black excellence.
Even Croydon’s own Stormzy – the South London, British-Ghanaian rapper, while seemingly humble, the self-bolstering “STORM” in his stage name, alludes to, an unyielding blackness, an awareness of oneself that is uncontained and unwilling to prostrate to mediocrity. Reinforced further by his frequent imploring of his “young black kings and queens” to “rise up” – a regal anointing placed on his seemingly, largely black, fanbase.
You’d be mistaken to think these examples, these ethnosymbolisms of self-celebration – by popular black figures are coincidental, exist in a vacuum, or are mere trivialities of their self-stroked big-headedness. Far from it, they are instead, a call and response to a white-incubated world that retells a rehearsed narrative that black excellence is – and “always-already” – bested by white mediocrity. As a disgruntled Nelson George – an African American author and cultural critic – philosophised, regarding the 1965 Teenage Music Awards International (TAMI) concert:
“[an audience that] could cheer as Mick Jagger jiggled across the stage doing his lame funky chicken after James Brown’s incredible, camel-walking, proto-moon-walking, athletically daring performance – greeting each with equal decibels-revealed a dangerous lack of discrimination. To applaud black excellence and white mediocrity with the same vigour is to view them as equals, in which case the black artist in America always loses.”
As such, black minorities must do at least twice as much – and thrice as well, as their white peers to achieve the utopia of racialised and racial-gendered equilibrium – or some version of, or allusion to it, at the very least. Herein lies the sad reality that white mediocrity necessitates an apexed or “mastermind blackness” to compete with it.
It is for this reason that Glover and the rest have become their own walking-talking PR machines. They have learned, unlearned and still understanding that they need not outsource affirmation or ephemeral “pats on the back” by others. Rather draw from their own internal diplomacies for the “pick-me-up moments”. Because, if they – black creatives – don’t big themselves up and be the jarring tinnitus of self-indulgence that they are, then who will?
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Edward Ademolu is a doctoral researcher in International Development at The University of Manchester. His doctorate and research interests are centred on the politics of visual representation, with a particular focus on development/humanitarian representations of Africa and African diaspora by NGOs, Western news reporting and contemporary mainstream media. His broader interests include works on race, black minority identities, postcolonial discourse and criticism, as well as, The New Social Studies of childhood and anti-oppressive discourses in Social Work practice. My research summary, audio presentation. Tweet him @ed_ade1
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