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Janelle Monáe, Donald Glover, and the Exclusivity of Black Genius

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On April 27, Janelle Monáe released her latest project, Dirty Computer. Through it, the femdroid allows the listener to enter into a new realm of immovable and robust queerness, autonomy, and joy. With trans-inclusive songs about the triumph of love like Pynk; sexy and provocative songs like Make Me Feel; songs which demand space for Black women’s agency and independence like Django Jane; and songs which detail the complexities of her humanity like I Like That, Monáe finds a way to encapsulate the fullness of her blackness without ever trivializing or commodifying Black Death.

 

The same cannot be said for Donald Glover.

Childish Gambino//This Is America

On May 6, Donald Glover—also known as Childish Gambino—released a song and visual titled This is America, where he raps about what it looks like to exist as a Black American in this current political climate.

As Gambino dances through the warehouse, in a chair sits a Black man playing the guitar. In one moment, you can see his face; in the next, his head is covered and, without warning, Gambino takes a gun and shoots him in the back of the head. The artist continues to dance through this empty warehouse, accompanied by young Black kids, as chaos ensues around him. After he finishes one of his dance takes, the camera pans to the inside of what is supposed to represent a Black church, specifically Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—the historic church in Charleston, SC which also serves as the site for the murder of nine members at the hands of Dylann Roof. Gambino dances into the church as the choir sings. Then, for the second time, without warning, he opens fire on the entire choir. After both of these shootings, Gambino places the firearms neatly in a red cloth. I surmise that the red represents the blood of Black people and the care with which he handles the guns is intended to provide a visual for how little Black lives matter in America and how much guns matter to America.

It has been argued that This is America was intended to be a critique to/of Black people; as a way to say that we have long ignored, or turned away from, the chaos around us, using pop culture as an escape. It has also been argued that This is America was a message to white people as an attempt to engage their “moral consciousness”; to draw attention to the plight of Black American people. I am positing that, irrespective of who the intended audience was, Gambino’s commodification of Black Death was irresponsible and not impactful.

Since our very existence in America, Black people have resisted. We resisted the Transatlantic Slave Trade and enslavement through jumping ship, revolting, and building pathways which would lead to the freedom of tens of thousands of enslaved people; we resisted Jim Crow by demanding and carving out space which we were told could never be ours. We’ve resisted through the art and music of the Harlem Renaissance; we’ve resisted through Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA); we’ve resisted through the Montgomery Bus Boycott; through the sit-in era and the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); through the March on Selma; through the rise of the Black Panther Party and other armed-resistance movements; and today we continue in the tradition of radical Black resistance through anti-mass incarceration and police movements. And through each of these eras—through each moment of resistance—Black people have found ways to laugh, to love, to heal, to carry on in the face of adversity; not as a form of distraction, but as a form of self-preservation.

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This remains true even if his intended audience is white. However, whiteness has no moral consciousness because whiteness is always already immoral. The very existence of whiteness is what makes room for anti-Black violences, for gun violence, for America to look the way that Gambino depicted it in his video. And since much of Gambino’s audience is white, and we exist under anti-Black capitalism, I’d argue that there is no way to produce content on his level without it being consumed by white people. Due to this, serving up Black Pain and Black Death on a silver platter as to appeal to the nonexisting consciousness of whiteness is counterproductive and only trivializes our trauma.

In 2014, after the months-long resistance in Ferguson that sparked a new wave of community organizing, organizers across the country did what we called die-ins as direct action. That soon transitioned out of our liberation toolkit, however, because it was more harmful than it was helpful. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was rarely ever a moment where one couldn’t turn on the news and see a slain Black body. Because of this, at least in Atlanta organizing spaces, we realized that the circulation of more still, motionless Black bodies did not/could not/would not disrupt the moral unconsciousness of whiteness. Instead, it forced Black people to continue to visualize ourselves as lifeless. So, too, is this true for This is America.

In an interview discussing her compilation album, Protest Anthology, Nina Simone—an artist best known for using her love for music as a medium for her activism during the Civil Rights Movement—stated that an artist’s duty was to reflect the times. I believe that she was correct. Art, especially Black Art, has a particular and significant responsibility to insight and to amplify. Through This is America, I believe that Gambino was making an attempt to do just that. However, I do not believe that art requires us to reproduce imagery that is already inescapable. Art does not demand that we subject ourselves (and others) to the already-inescapable trauma of existing as Black in America. In the visual for Beyoncé’s Formation, she makes a similar critique of America through the drowning of a police car in the New Orleans water and having a little Black child dance in the face of New Orleans police. While there is room to critique her display of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what that might trigger for Katrina survivors, she never once trivialized Black Death by placing the literal murders of Black people on display in the way that Gambino does.

The ability to uplift Black women while postulating the death of the state—and not of Black people—is what's genius. It is because of this that I believe that Janelle Monáe deserves to be celebrated and uplifted as Black Genius. Click To Tweet

Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, Kanye West, and Donald Glover are just a few of the names of Black cisgender, heterosexual men who rap that have been labeled as “genius.” Men whose misogyny and sexism, heterosexism and cissexism, and blatant anti-blackness have been excused and justified to preserve their status as genius while women like Janelle and Beyoncé are either overlooked or deemed overrated. This begs the question: who is Black Genius reserved for and, with Gambino’s recent video, when will space be created to broaden that definition?

Janelle Monáe//Dirty Computer

We do not have to plaster our blood on walls or lay our bodies on cold ground to discuss our blackness in America. To me, the ability to create a comprehensive album which struggles through the joys of being Black and queer while also discussing the ills of existing with those same identities in America, while never having to showcase murdered Black bodies, is what’s genius. The ability to uplift Black women while postulating the death of the state—and not of Black people—is what’s genius. It is because of this that I believe that Janelle Monáe deserves to be celebrated and uplifted as Black Genius. That this fresh project she released, which brings the intersection at which blackness and queerness meet to mainstream conversation, makes her Black Genius. Her ability to dream up entire worlds, conjuring the Black Arts Movement with her own particular twist, makes her Black Genius. There is something subversive with naming her work (and, thusly, herself) as “dirty” as a queer Black woman—three identities which have long been viewed as impure and unclean—and making it mean something that is complex and stern, yet joyous and hopeful.

I do not believe that we should pull our politic from celebrities. I believe that for as long as “Celebrity” exists, it is their job to pull from and amplify those of us whose voices are not as clearly heard. I do not believe that any true uprising will be led by The Celebrity. Said again, any real revolution must be led by poor and working-class people. The role of Celebrity—until it, too, is abolished—is to make space for those of us who are doing liberation work on the ground. However, seeing as how the term “pansexual” was the top searched word on Merriam-Webster post-release of Dirty Computer, I believe that Janelle has proven that Black Art is not reserved for cisgender, heterosexual Black men. It is for this reason that she, to me, represents Black Genius.

 

What mainstream or underground black women artists do you support?

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Jay-Z, Colin Kaepernick, and Toxic Black Capitalism

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Jay-Z’s recent decision to align himself with the NFL has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. And for good reason. Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed by the league for 897 days. With no sign of him returning, despite maintaining a rigorous fitness regime, many are wondering why Jay-Z did not consult Kaepernick before signing on.

Five am workouts five days a week for three long years. Colin Kaepernick has been waiting in the wings since the NFL colluded to bar him from playing amidst player protests. Eric Reid, who stood beside Kaep in solidarity, has been subjected to excessive random drug tests for just as long. As season after season dredges on, Eric says he has no desire to refrain from protesting and has pledged to kneel during the national anthem this year as well. With NFL viewership in steady decline due to boycotts within the Black community, the league has reached out to an unlikely partner to repair their image and boost their ratings, Jay-Z.

Turncoat

A one-time supporter of the national anthem protests that brought awareness to blatant police brutality, Jay-Z has decided that there’s no time like the present to profit from his brother’s struggle. Billionaire rapper Jay-Z has brokered a deal with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The Roc Nation mogul is now positioned to serve as a gatekeeper, deciding who’s worthy to take the stage as a Super Bowl halftime act. As the internet reflects on Jay’s very vocal criticism of the NFL and recent Super Bowl Halftime Show performers, the irony and hypocrisy of this situation is lost on no one.

“Don’t Do This”

When news of Travis Scott’s participation in the 2019 Halftime Show reached Jay-Z’s ears, he was quick to ask the “Sicko Mode” rapper not to perform. Citing the poor treatment of Colin Kaepernick as the league turned a blind eye to police brutality, Jay-Z urged Travis to change his stance. But now, the “4:44” rapper is the one that’s turned the other cheek. Stating, “we’re past the point of kneeling”, Jay has all but embraced the ideals of his peers. Considering this partnership an opportunity to change the beast from the inside, Jay said in a recent interview that “this is the next phase.”

“We forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case, this is a success. This is the next phase. There [are] two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?”

Ever the capitalist, Jay-Z has turned the ostracism of Kaepernick and scrutiny of Reid into a means of personal profit. While preaching Black solidarity, he cradles the all-mighty dollar. To onlookers, this poses a moral dilemma, but we forget billionaires often lack morals and have questionable ethics. While it is unlikely that Kaepernick will respond with his thoughts on the matter, his longtime girlfriend, Nessa, and Eric Reid have made their thoughts known.

You can’t trust a man who cheated on Beyoncé to make good life choices

Eric Reid took to Twitter yesterday afternoon to chastise Jay-Z for his decision. Stating, “Jay-Z knowingly made a money move with the very people who’ve committed an injustice against Colin and is using social justice to smooth it over with the black community,” Reid says the fight is on. He believes that it is “unjust” that the NFL is now “championing” social justice to cover their own systemic oppression in blackballing his former teammate. What Nessa has to say was much more scathing.

Sharing a video on Instagram of her boyfriend, Colin Kaepernick, training with his ally, former 49er Eric Reid, Nessa included a lengthy statement regarding Jay-Z’s decision.

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We will never turn our backs on @kaepernick7 because your idols decided to work with the same organization that is actively keeping Colin unemployed all because he peacefully protested against social injustice in black and brown communities, specifically police brutality. So really, how can Jay-Z and the NFL utter social justice in their partnership while keeping Colin unemployed because of his social justice work? • • It’s typical for the NFL to buy different PR looks to cover up their dirt-that’s nothing new. But what is disgusting and disappointing is Jay-Z let them use him. Whether Jay-Z knew it or not (I don’t doubt his intelligence-so I would think he knew) he helped the NFL bury who he said is an iconic figure, Colin Kaepernick. • • Don’t tell me there’s a “master plan and wait for it” because the ONLY reason anything would ever change is because THE PEOPLE are loud and clear and won’t let the league buy their loyalty with their disingenuous moves. The people are letting the league and anyone who works with them know that they aren’t buying the bs. • • Thank you all so much for showing Colin so much support and love. I know for myself, I can’t thank y’all enough for loving my family. • #imwithkap #nokapnonfl ❤️❤️❤️ • • #RP: @kaepernick7: ‪You never turned your back on me or the people, even when the nfl tried to silence your voice & the movement. You’ve never flinched or wavered. I love you Brother! Let’s get it! @E_Reid35‬ ‪ And to the people – I see you, I hear you and I love you! Thank you for having my back!!!✊🏾‬ • • 🎥: @relrelrelrel @djtonedef

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Knowing that Jay-Z is helping the NFL rebrand itself is disheartening but predictable. After all, he is a prominent figure in the Black community. It was inevitable that the league would reach out to a “respected” rapper to leverage his image to increase viewership. In fact, it’s the same strategy they used when they reached out to Travis Scott. The only difference here is that Jay-Z is well within the ranks of the wealthy, privy to those dubious politics, and versed in the manipulation of exploiting his own community for financial gain.

Do you believe that Jay-Z’s efforts will lead to further dissension in the NFL? Or will his position as a gatekeeper lead to a fitting resolution? Do you think his relationship with Robert Kraft influenced his decision?

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Merited Whiteness: Why Chris Cuomo Responded Violently to “Fredo”

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Instead of talking about the obvious wrong of comparing “Fredo” to the n-word, let’s discuss merited Whiteness and Cuomo’s response.

While out with his family, Chris Cuomo was accosted by a man who compared him to the Judas Iscariot of the Corleone family, Fredo Corleone. It’s easy to see why Chris would have perceived the sudden hurling of “Fredo” as an insult, who wouldn’t. Fredo was a man out of his depth. He was intelligent, sure. But he lacked the cunning necessary to navigate life in the mafia. Fredo was a soft-hearted, loveable idiot who said more than he should have to the wrong people. His unintentional slight got him in trouble with a community that felt entitled to his allegiance. This is the very same entitlement that possessed a stranger to believe he held the authority to pull Chris Cuomo’s merited whiteness card.

Fredo’s offense in many ways is seen as something lateral to Chris Cuomo’s presence as a journalist at CNN. The child of the 52nd Governor of New York and brother of the current Governor, who is a staunch critic of Republican politicians and their constituents, Chris stands on the wrong side, to some, in a fight for “American Values.” He is outspoken and detached from his beginnings as a political analyst on Fox News. Being the descendant of a family that is only two generations removed from their Tramonti, Campania Italian origins, The Cuomo’s represent a side of American history that is not often discussed, the assimilation of European immigrants to American whiteness.

When Italians began immigrating to the US, they were not looked upon favorably. But like the Irish and members of other European communities, they united in their “othered” state to gain acceptance, overcome their backgrounds, and race toward the American Dream. But the American Dream isn’t a big house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a dog, it’s whiteness. To be White is to be distinctly American, devoid of cultural attachments and devoted to racial supremacy. But like the Borg, whiteness requires assimilation and shared consciousness. Like their hive-minded chant, Magats would also believe “Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

For families like the Cuomo’s, who were privileged enough to own a business and accumulate wealth shortly after their arrival, the trajectory to acceptance was higher than most. As Henry Pratt Fairchild said when discussing the bestowed privileges of whiteness to immigrants, “If he proves himself a man, and rises above his station, and acquires wealth, and cleans himself up — very well, we receive him after a generation or two. But at present, he is far beneath us, and the burden of proof rests with him.” So how, after a single generation, did the Cuomo’s ascend their station? By becoming fast friends with the Trump family.

After Mario Cuomo represented Fred Trump in an undisclosed legal matter, their families maintained contact. Golfing trips in Florida and New York, letters filled with flattery, and partnerships that benefitted the Trumps as developers and the Cuomos political ambitions. Beyond the business relationships of the two families, you have to wonder what values they grew to share. Judging by a 2008 remark regarding Barack Obama where Andrew spouted “You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference.” and Chris’ false equivalence of Fredo and the n-word, they share quite a few. Still, you must wonder why “Fredo” would elicit such a response from Chris. Is it because he feels his status demands subordination? Is it because he felt his whiteness was challenged?

Perceiving the use of “Fredo” as an anti-Italian slur, Chris Cuomo found himself feeling as immigrants did upon their arrival to the “land of dreams.” As explored by Maria Elisa Altese, there is a perception that Italian-Americans have forgotten what it is like to be targeted. Chris Cuomo has lived comfortably in the US as a white man, never before having his status challenged. As written by Robert F. Forester, in a country where the distinction between white man and black is intended as a distinction of value… it is no compliment to the Italian to deny him his whiteness, but that actually happens with considerable frequency.” So in his rage, Chris expressed how entitled he felt to the benefits of whiteness, it’s inclusivity, and how no one like him wants to be Black.

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Should I Have to Disclose That I’m HIV+ If I’m Undetectable?

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