Art and Entertainment, Uncategorized

Is black television having a moment, or is the landscape of entertainment changing?

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A Nielsen report released in February reveals that television shows with a black lead or black cast draws a significant percentage of non-black viewers. Shows like Shonda Rhime’s Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder has nearly 70 percent non-black viewership. Black-ish, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, has almost 80 percent non-black viewership.

Shuntrell Rudolph, a black 24 year old pharmacy student at Florida A & M University believes the “fascination” of black people and the portrayal of black people as multi-faceted and not a monolith is what make black shows appealing.

“I think black shows are being consumed by majority of non-black audiences because black shows can show a diversity within the black community,” Rudolph said. “You have shows like Empire, who some think might exploit blacks in a negative way, but then you have shows like Black-ish who exemplifies a modern day wealthy black family. Shows like Underground show how strong black people were when they dealt with oppression. And just like then, other races have always been fascinated with black people.”

Throughout entertainment history, black creators have always had to grapple with the concept of cross-over appeal in order to be successful, despite black culture’s heavy influence on mainstream American culture.  Nielson reported that 73% of non-Hispanic whites and 67% of Hispanics believe that African-Americans influence mainstream culture. Yet black men and especially black women have, for the most part, been kept out of writer’s rooms, directing, producing, or playing lead roles because of the idea that black content would not attract non-black audiences.

The earliest successful black television shows were from the late 70’s such as The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, and Good Times, then The Cosby Show in the 80’s. Still, outside of these shows it was rare to see leading black characters on TV. There have been moments in television history such as in the 90’s where there was an uptick of programming featuring black casts. There was In Living Color, A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Living Single, and Girlfriends.  

The periods where there was an increase of black television shows was almost always followed by a period where there was essentially none. This current black entertainment renaissance was ushered in by Shonda Rhimes with Scandal. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, the most powerful woman in Washington, D.C., and was the first black woman in over 40 years to hold a lead role in a primetime series.

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Another notable finding in the Nielsen report is an almost inverse relationship between the percentage of non-black viewers a show attracts and the percentage of black viewers.

This is Us, which features only one black lead actor, Sterling K. Brown, as a black man adopted into a white family, has an 88.96 percent of non-black viewership versus a 11.05 percent black viewership.

26-year-old Shaza Hussein, a grad student at California Institute of Integral Studies and first generation Sudanese-American, thinks black television shows that are more popular among non-blacks are so because they are palatable to white audiences.

“I watched This is Us and gave up on it,” Hussein said. “I watch Sense8, of which one lead character is African. I watch Insecure for sure, since it’s days as Awkward Black Girl. I feel like a lot of black shows and black lead shows get non-black viewership because they are made for non-black people ultimately. If it were actually made and coded for black people it would probably be deemed too niche.”

“That’s how I felt about This is Us and that’s why I stopped watching. It felt sort of one dimensional and I felt like it was made for a white audience. I watch Sense8 because half the main cast is non-white so it’s diverse all around and the characters have complex identities not stereotypically based on their racial identity. I watch Insecure for the same reason.”

Shows like the reality TV hit Real Housewives of Atlanta, Empire, Atlanta are more steeped into black culture and reality and attract more black viewers than non-black viewers.

Brandon Beverly, a 30 year old black resident thinks that reality television resonates with the black community because “we relate to the trauma or drama.”

“A lot of [black] people didn’t like The Cosby’s in the 80’s because they said it wasn’t realistic,” Beverly said. “White people adored Bill Cosby. Same thing with Fresh Prince. White people loved Fresh Prince, black people loved Martin.”

“If black TV shows were like Spike Lee movies or Daughters of the Dust they would be less watched [by non-black audiences,]” Hussein said. “Some black shows aren’t showing black english or poor black people or even really speaking to black social reality, they just have black people.”

The success of shows like Insecure or Atlanta, series that depict black reality, show a promising future for black content creators who are hoping to build on the work of Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Lee Daniels Ava Duverney, and Donald Glover. With the increasing number of rising black voices, perhaps the trend of diverse black programming becomes a norm.

 

Art and Entertainment, Uncategorized

Donald Glover is the renaissance man of entertainment

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At the 2017 Golden Globe awards there were five shows nominated to win Best Comedy or Musical TV Series. They were Veep, Black-ish, Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent, and FX’s Atlanta.

When it was announced that Atlanta won the coveted Golden Globe award, 33-year-old show creator and lead actor Donald Glover accepted the award with the cast behind him.

“I really just want to thank Atlanta and all the black folks in Atlanta. Just for being alive and being amazing people. I couldn’t be here without Atlanta,” Glover said. “I really wanna thank the Migos, not for being in the show, but for making “Bad and Boujee.” That’s the best song ever.”

Glover’s acceptance speech taps directly into the heart of African-American culture in front of a majority white American audience and is indicative of a new Black Renaissance era in the entertainment industry, and Glover, also known under his rap name as Childish Gambino, is quickly solidifying his place as the renaissance man of entertainment today.

Born on an Air Force base in California and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia by a retired postal worker and a daycare provider, Glover attended magnet school at the DeKalb Center for Performing Arts and studied dramatic writing at prestigious New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Glover made his name in entertainment when he was recruited by Tina Fey to write for NBC’s 30 Rock while he was only 22 years old.

“He was actually still, I believe, living in an NYU dorm,” Tina Fey said in an 2012 interview for Entertainment Weekly. “He was an RA, and he would work and go home to a dorm.”

30 Rock became one of the most critically acclaimed primetime television comedies of all time, garnering 90 Emmy award nominations and other accolades. Glover also starred in another NBC comedy, Community, which became extremely popular and received critical acclaim.

Writing, acting, and producing isn’t the only things that Glover does well. Under the name Childish Gambino, a stage name he reportedly chose from a Wu-Tang name generator, Glover developed a successful music career as a rapper and singer.  His sophomore album Because the Internet was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 57th annual Grammy Awards and peaked at #1 in the Top Rap Album of the Billboard charts.

His most recent release Awaken, My Love! Glover goes full R&B, utilizing funk and psychedelic soul. It debuted in the #2 spot of the Billboard charts with one of his lead singles, “Redbone” peaking at #1 on the R&B charts.

While Glover recently announced he is retiring as Childish Gambino, fans patiently await his next projects. This summer he has joined an all-star cast in the blockbuster Spider-man: Homecoming.  Atlanta’s second season has been put on hold because Glover is starring as a young Lando Calrissan in the upcoming Han Solo movie, a highly anticipated Lucasfilm production.

It seems there are very few things Glover can’t execute.

“I’m having a moment of creative elasticity. It’s easier for me to do it, but I know eventually the rubber band will come back together,” said Glover in interview with Deadline last June.

“So I’m just doing what I can right now. I’m, you know, the word isn’t really “fortunate” because it’s not like luck or anything, it’s just the wave of things—I’m cresting. It’s cool.”

Art and Entertainment, Uncategorized

SZA releases Debut Album “Ctrl”

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In the classic days of hip-hop, rappers would often feature vocals from a “round-the way girl’ in their songs. These women are from the neighbourhood, real women who add raw soul in the background, never overpowering the masculinity of the rapper on the track, and often remain nameless in the credit.

Top Dawg Entertainment’s r&b artist SZA is the millennial version of the “round-the-way girl,” but instead of playing in the back as support she is placed front and center.  She is like your homegirl who also happens to be a soulful songstress with a voice made for jazz, contemplating vulnerability and heartbreak in the millennial era over hip hop, pop and rock influenced beats.

“There’s this fear, that if I lost control, if I did not have control, things would just be, you know, fatal.”

These are the opening lines from Ctrl, SZA’s debut studio album. These lines are sampled from a voice message left by SZA’s mom and introduces listeners to the overall theme of the album: Control.

Many people like to imagine that they have control over every aspect of their lives, their relationships, or their career. Sometimes this can be true, but for anyone who has ever experienced love or heartbreak, there are some events we have no control over.

SZA (pronounced Sizz-Uh,) is also no stranger to this. Fans anxiously awaited as the release date for Ctrl kept getting pushed back. On October 3, 2016 while frustrated, she tweeted “I quit, [Punch] can release the album if he ever feels like it.”

Thankfully SZA remained with TDE. As the only woman on the independent record label, she has held her own against heavy-hitting label mates like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. In early 2017 her two leading singles “Drew Barrymore” and “Love Galore” were finally released, and the album dropped June 9 and eventually earned the number three spot on the Billboard 200.

Ctrl was worth the wait. It is the confident, funny, edgy, and relatable soundtrack for 20-somethings trying to navigate a changing world. It’s how a 90’s indie rom-com would sound like as an album, complete with references to movies and shows like Forrest Gump (“Doves in the Wind”) and Martin (“Go Gina.”)

Each track is a personal, honest, observant, and analytical. SZA reminds listeners how relationships behave like mirrors, how we see a better reflection of ourselves through the interactions with people in our lives.

Ctrl offers a lesson on how relationships teach us more about ourselves. SZA explores the different aspects of love- its presence or absence, the drama of it, the excitement, the intensity, the adventure. The longing, the loneliness, the pettiness, and the comedy of it all.

Art and Entertainment, Uncategorized

Netflix’s Dear White People tackles identity politics and black rage

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While viewing season one of Justin Simien’s Dear White People on Netflix, a James Baldwin quote comes to mind. “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”

While Baldwin said this in 1961, the sentiment rings true today. The constant rage Baldwin spoke about is what the black characters in Dear White People’s fictional Ivy League college, Winchester University, deal with in their own way.

There’s Sam White (played by Logan Browning,) the outspoken bi-racial social justice activist who hosts the controversial campus radio show titled Dear White People. She organizes with Reggie Green (played by Marque Richardson) an intellectual who crushes on Sam and is ultimately disappointed when it’s revealed she is dating a white guy, Gabe. Sam’s former best friend is Colandrea Collins (Antoinette Roberston,) who goes by “Coco” as one of her many efforts to downplay her blackness in order to achieve her ambitious goals and navigate the politics of a predominately white institution. Her ambitions lead her into a relationship with Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) the popular, respectable and non-threatening student body president who is also the son of the dean. Then there’s Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton,) the loner who ends up with a front seat to all the drama, giving him plenty of bylines for the campus newspaper, The Winchester Independent, while he comes to terms with his sexuality.

The Netflix series was born from the feature film released in 2014 of the same name and picks up where the movie leaves off- showing how the campus responds to a blackface party thrown by white student, Kurt Fletcher, the head of Pastiche, the campus satirical magazine, and son of the university’s president.

While the film seemed to be predictable and redundant at times (at least for black audiences,) the series paves way for greater development as the characters find ways to control their rage. For black people in the United States, the act of self-preservation in majority white spaces is a collective experience dealt with individually, and Winchester University serves as the microcosm exploring the range of institutional racism.

One particular episode that does this well is Chapter V, which was beautifully directed by Barry Jenkins who is most known for directing the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight. The episode’s rising action begins with a micro-aggression at a house party, one all too familiar with any black person who has ever attended a concert. A white friend of Reggie’s says the n-word while singing along to a hip-hop song. Reggie checks him and attempts to continue on with the party, but the white student, in the entitled way white men are notoriously enabled to behave, starts an argument defending his use of the word. “It’s not like I’m racist,” he said.

This scene stood out because America is seemingly made up many white people similar to Reggie’s friend. As police brutality and protests dominate the news cycle, somehow there are white people that make it seems as if it’s more offensive to be called a racist than actual racism. This is one of the main issues that Dear White People seeks to address- both the fictional radio show led by Sam and the series.

The argument at the house party escalates and soon the show takes us from the micro-aggression to the campus police being called and Reggie stared down by the barrel of a police officer’s gun. It is one of the most dramatic scenes in Dear White People, yet the fear is one of the most realistic moments of the show.

Even as a show dealing with heavy themes and tackling identity politics, the humor is sharp and witty, complete with Scandal and Iyalana Fix My Life parodies offering comedic relief. The rage still shows up as the main character in each episode, which can be draining for black viewers who deal with this rage in real life. With a second season on the horizon, one could hope it offers more catharsis for those looking to control their rage.

Art and Entertainment, Uncategorized

Blues artist Janiva Magness accesses pain to create beauty

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Janiva Magness knows the blues. The Detroit native and award-winning singer-songwriter grew up an orphan after the suicides of both her parents while she was just a pre-teen. In the foster care system she lived in and out of 12 different homes, and was sometimes homeless.  At 17 she became pregnant and gave her daughter up for adoption.

In the midst of a miserable existence, Magness was able to find refuge in music. Her salvation came when she snuck into a club in Minneapolis and witnessed a transformative performance by blues legend Otis Rush.

“Otis played as if his life depended on it,” Magness recalled in an interview. “There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it.”

That experience helped Magness tap into her own magic. She got her start as a background singer after being recruited for vocals at the recording studio she interned at. In the early 1980s Magness found a mentor with the musical director for the iconic Sam Cooke, Bob Tate. In 1985 she formed her first band, Janiva Magness And The Mojomatics. Magness garnered local success and then took off to Los Angeles and began releasing albums independently. It wasn’t until she signed with Northern Blues Music where she got her first Billboard hit in 2006 with “Do I Move You?”

In 2008 Magness signed with Alligator Records and released What Love Will Do, The Devil is an Angel Too, and Stronger For it, receiving critical acclaim and many awards. She started her own label Fathead Records and began recording original songs in 2014. With each succeeding album, she reaches new heights and attracts a wider audience. Her compelling and flexible voice accesses pain and sass in a raw way that touches the soul of listeners.

“We need real music now more than ever because it gives us strength to pull through tough times,”Magness said. “We need it in a real bad way. Blues is a ray of hope. It articulates what’s lacking in people’s lives.”

Perhaps it is her live performances that makes her so remarkable. She is so well known for her spellbinding and cathartic live shows that she became the second woman ever to receive the Blues Foundation’s highly coveted B.B King Entertainer of the Year Award, presented by B.B King himself in 2009.

With a career spanning three decades, 12 albums, and over 150 club performances a year Magness has solidified herself as a premiere blues artist, and today at the age of 60 continues to move people all over the world.