What Do We Want From Black Artists?

It’s hard to watch the “carnage and chaos” of Childish Gambino’s new video and not think of various other black performers and how we think of their blackness. As Gambino dances through a warehouse, shooting black performers, dancing viral moves, performing a grotesque parody of joy, violent riots unfold in the background. We’re so mesmerised by Gambino’s body, so obviously foregrounded, that at least at first, we don’t pay attention to the background.

Gambino, on the other hand, participates in the chaos – killing people, looking back at the teens to keep them engaged with his moves, but ignores the police cars and escalating mayhem behind him. His own relationship to the ‘America’ he’s describing implicates and distances him at the same time.

Gambino is a representative of black culture in our eyes, the sole voice we have access to. He and us are so engrossed in his version of the country that we literally ignore what’s happening right behind him. However, there’s ambivalence here – we guiltily acknowledge our ignoring to ourselves but we don’t know if Gambino’s character is doing it unconsciously or intentionally.

How unapologetically black can an artist be before we decide to reject them for being ‘too much’, that is, too inaccessible? Kanye West, of stupendous fame and beloved music, is so removed from ‘America’ that he thinks slavery was a choice and supports a president known for racist views. His music will always carry discomfort with it now, at least for me. But others, experts in slicing and dicing context from output, will insist that artist and art can be separated. As if artist and person can also be separated.

‘This is America’ – and now the unrepentant, ignorant memefication of the video – don’t just present us with an uncomfortable depiction of our own relationship with American life and pop culture, but force us to ask what our ways of viewing and consuming do to black performers.

Rap has been around for years now and evolved in so many different ways, but commentators are stuck on the same old questions – the n-word, the overt sexism and the vanity that people continue to think are restricted to this genre in particular. Yet we happily appropriate aspects of this culture into the ‘mainstream’ – sneakers, big gold hoops, big lips, big butts, music, vernacular. We exalt the performer, all while maintaining a distance from the culture that performer is actually telling us about. And it becomes an iterative game where the performer learns to give us more of what we want – which is to feel cultured without actually expanding our knowledge or acknowledging our responsibility.

Gambino in ‘This is America’ knows that our love is fickle and his fame will fade quickly if he doesn’t keep up this palatable, distracting performance. That last scene, where he’s getting chased through a dark tunnel by a white mob – that could be his future unless he gets so mind-boggling famous that he earns impunity from the pejorative the society he’s catering to.

In a way, you get to live the dream – be so good at your art that you actually make money from it. That’s an impossible proposition for the majority of people on this planet. But you still have to tread carefully, because if you don’t achieve mind boggling levels of fame (or something that resembles white privilege) you’re still susceptible to the institutionalised pitfalls of racism.

You have to be Beyonce – at the peak of her career – to sink a police car in Katrina water and two years later, take over Coachella with an unapologetic celebration of blackness. But to get there, you have to obsessively monitor every aspect of your public image for decades, possibly lighten your skin, and find that sweet middle-ground between identity and persona.

And eventually, you have to surrender yourself to the slicing and de-contextualising of yourself at the hands of a, hopefully, ever-expanding audience.

On FEAR, Pulitzer-winner, Kendrick Lamar, raps:

At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged

How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city

What they say ’bout me reveal if my reputation would miss me

What they see from me would trickle down generations in time

What they hear from me would make ’em highlight my simplest lines

We’re in a moment where black artists are both popular and critically revered. But we’re also in a moment where covert, subconscious racism is hitting a rather overt note across the US. Lamar’s fear then, of standing in for an entire people, and being remembered for his simplest lines, is already somewhat reflected in our current moment.

The successes of real life performers and the lives of the communities they come from feel strangely divorced from each other at some points, and desperately aspirational at others. We’re oh-so-willing to celebrate black success and oh-so-desperate to ignore the widespread trauma and chaos right behind it. Which in turn, makes it difficult for the performer themselves – should they never get to experience and depict joy? Does art have to be realistic or elevated? Can it be multifaceted? And most importantly of all, are we as viewers capable of developing a more nuanced way of consuming black culture?

Featured image credit: Youtube