When you’re a public figure, there are rules. Here’s one: A public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, but he can’t be any more than two of these traits at a time. It’s why antics and soundbites from guys like Brett Favre, Johnny Football and Bryce Harper seem almost hyper-American, capable of capturing the country’s imagination, but black superstars like Richard Sherman, Floyd Mayweather, and Cam Newton are seen as polarizing, as selfish, as glory boys, as distasteful and perhaps offensive.
It’s why we recoil at Kanye West’s rants, like when West, one of the greatest musical minds of our generation, had the audacity to publicly declare himself a genius (was this up for debate?), and partly why, over the six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a noisy, obstreperous wing of the GOP has seemed perpetually on the cusp of calling him “uppity.” Barry Bonds at his peak was black, talented, and arrogant; he was a problem for America. Joe Louis was black, talented, and at least outwardly humble; he was “a credit to his race, the human race,” as Jimmy Cannon once wrote.
All this is based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place, and more tellingly, that their place is somewhere different than that of whites. It’s been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping. It’s uppity. It is, as Fox Sports’s Kayla Knapp tweeted last night, petrifying.
— Deadspin on Richard Sherman
I went around and showed people what I’d done and said, “Hey, I made Watch the Throne, I made this amount of music for the past 10 years, I have this level of visuals, this level of communication, I can sell this many albums, and I also have these new inventions. Will anybody help me out?” I met with 30 billionaires, 30 companies, and basically everyone said, “Fuck you.” I said, “How could this happen? How could not one person want to invest in these different ideas?” I mean, if I grouped up with three guys in a basement and started a new tech company that was very similar to another tech company down the street, but it just so happened that I had a few more followers than the other guy, then I could get all the investment in the world and value my company at a certain amount. But then I have another idea and the entire world will say fuck you? Now, that is about money and power …
We tend to think that younger people “get” the Internet — are the bellwhethers and trendsetters — because they grew up with it, where the olds have to learn it. But what happens when you have middle aged people who grew up with the Internet? When everyone grew up with it?
So that leaves the question: Why? Why is there this drift away from black visibility in our music? Not to be too grand about it, but my honest opinion is that it’s of a piece with what Ta-Nehisi Coates would call the myth of a post-racial America. Music fans are playing out an unironic version of Stephen Colbert’s joke about not seeing color—we’re cool with the idea that authentic rhythmic music can now come from anyone, and yet somehow, when the data is compiled about what we’re all buying and streaming, the Timberlakes and Matherses and Macklemores keep winding up atop the stack, ahead of the Miguels and J. Coles.
This New Year, I wish you more blank slates. May you have more blank white pages sitting in front you with your favorite pen nearby and at the ready. May you have blank screens in your code editor with your absolutely favorite color syntax highlighting. May your garage work table be empty save for a single large piece of reclaimed redwood and a saw.
Turn off those notifications, turn your phone over, turn on your favorite music, stare at your blank slate and consider what you might build. In that moment of consideration, you’re making an important decision: create or consume? The things we’re giving to the future are feeling increasingly unintentional and irrelevant. They are half-considered thoughts of others. When you choose to create, you’re bucking the trend because you’re choosing to take the time to build.
And that’s a great way to start the year.
Final hours of 2013