Control System

Do white people know about The Jamie Foxx Show? For a television show that ran for four and a half years and has been in syndication ever since, I don’t believe so. Do white people remember “Blame It”? If you went to a nightclub or a bar (or had a pulse) in 2009, then you know the jam. It was number 1 on Billboard Hot 100 for 14 consecutive weeks. Anyone from a frat bro to a soccer mom that has had one too many has surely blamed it on the a-a-a-a-alcohol, right? Right.

Last month, while listening to Jam Session on The Ringer podcast network, I was stunned to find out white folks probably have forgotten or may be oblivious to these facts about Jamie Foxx’s career. Before speculating on Foxx’s relationship with Katie Holmes, The Ringer’s Head of Production Juliet Litman and Culture Deputy Editor Amanda Dobbins racked their brains over what Jamie is most famous for. They sidestepped Foxx’s Oscar winning performance in Ray, tossed out his appearance on Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” but didn’t quite stick the landing, and dismissed people’s memory of In Living Color. Foxx’s self-titled sitcom and smash hit record weren’t even given a thought.

Eventually, he is lackadaisically described as “generally famous.” And that bothered me immensely. For a career to span three decades, you’re bringing something to the table beyond generalities. Hell, they could’ve said he was famous for his hairline changing positions every other season and that would’ve been better than “generally famous.” On this particular episode, it was the straw that broken the camel’s back.

Earlier in the episode, Litman and Dobbins discussed Homecoming, the documentary/concert film produced by Beyoncé and released by Netflix in April of her 2018 Coachella performance. Beautifully produced, shot and edited, the two hour doc takes us on a journey of B’s admiration for HBCU’s, the road to recovery from her second (maybe third) pregnancy and the strenuous eight month process of creating Beychella. While the film was well crafted, Litman and Dobbin’s conversation was not. The women genuinely praised the artistic vision of Beyoncé and her accomplishment of pulling off the performance, but, in summation, rejected the film as a boring propaganda piece.

I wanted to forget their analysis of Homecoming and chalk it up to “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” But, in the span of a commercial break, the two women pivoted to a haphazard conversation of Jamie Foxx. The words “generally famous” sideswiped me and my excuse making for these women went out the window.

[Beyoncé] is her own myth maker and that can be frustrating… Especially the culture around her that springs up, it often feels you can’t criticize it. Maybe you can’t say “Homecoming is boring.” On this podcast, you can say “Homecoming is boring,” if you believe it. -Amanda Dobbins, Deputy Editor at The Ringer, on The Big Picture podcast

Deciding cultural gatekeepers is a murky proposition, primarily because minorities are not given a proper voice to analyze the culture they created. Making the choice on who analyzes what, particularly when the subject is minorities and their art/culture, has always had a history of being mishandled. Beyond this conversation at The Ringer, how many large news organizations are employing minorities and having them tell their stories to the mainstream (aka white people)? For example, ESPN created The Undefeated for the sole purpose of giving black journalist a platform to put their stories out. While I love and fully support The Undefeated and their staff, ESPN could’ve had these same writers on the mother ship platform doing the same type of reporting reaching a larger audience. I lionize rap’s Blog Era because there were dozens of young black journalists reporting on our culture with vigor, knowledge and style, and I lament it’s end because we haven’t seen that type of journalism on hip-hop culture since.

I’m not saying that if you aren’t of the culture, you can’t enjoy and participate in it, but how can we accept your opinion as accurate if you don’t know the history? I’m black and have lived in Texas for only two years, but how much should you trust my opinion on Mexican, and Mexican American traditions and culture without really knowing the history? I can observe and get to know about the people, but how deep could my knowledge really go if I’m not an active participant? How can someone accurately assess the significance of Homecoming and not even mention HBCU’s, their importance to black American culture and why their tradition moved Beyoncé to integrate it so heavily in her performance? There’s no way.

In March 2018, during an episode of The Big Picture, Ringer founder Bill Simmons, Chief Content Officer Sean Fennessey and Editorial Director Chris Ryan reminisced on the storied career of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg. They discussed his successes, failures and everything in-between, all leading up to the release of the mildly enjoyable but, overall, forgettable Ready Player One. I would estimate all three men are incredibly intelligent when it comes to discussing pop culture and film; in particular, Fennessey is, especially, exceptional. During the hour long conversation, however, not a single soul mentioned the importance of The Color Purple, a movie that is significant to black culture, especially to black women and the black LGBTQ community. The omission left me dismayed.

The Ringer’s problem doesn’t belong strictly to them, it’s systemic. But for a podcast network that generates, literally, millions of listens a month and earns millions of dollars of revenue, there is responsibility that comes with that. So, when making the observation that Homecoming is propaganda, people will listen but to not offer complete critique of Beyoncé’s art is misleading.

There’s currency in controlling how the world sees you, regardless if that currency is real, fake or should even exist. Project an image of strength and boom people, if they accept it, view you as strong, project sexiness and boom sexy, so on and so forth. And that buys whatever measure of respect and/or adulation that can be gained. We live in the age of digital curation: however we want the world to view us, we are only a few twiddles of the thumbs away from making it so. Think about the power of Instagram: you only post a portion of your world that you only want people to see. Everything from the beautiful family group photos to the lively party flicks to the mirror selfie; we, for a myriad of reasons, make specific choices as to what we want the world to know about us.

For black celebrities, public portrayal and perception are paramount. There’s a thin line between being everyone’s favorite and a trending topic that will be mocked. As Jay-Z once eloquently said, to be Bobby Brown then, you’ve have to be Bobby Brown now. The craft of creating art and performance are no longer needed to become famous, just the willingness to become a spectacle for the timeline’s amusement. Bobby and the late Whitney Houston were musical icons coming out the 80’s but, eventually, their lives were turned to tabloid fodder, something that Houston never recovered from.

Speaking of Mr. Carter, has his public persona ever recovered from the Solange elevator attack? One of the coolest rappers ever is meme’d for his lack of coolness. Shad “Lil Bow Wow” Moss, who’s had, without hyperbole, the most successful child-turned-adult rap career ever, is constantly made the butt of jokes once he pops up on social media. Are we sure Jussie Smollett will even have a career after his attack-but-not-really-but-who-really-knows-what-happened debacle? Fame and infamy are two very different things, so the value of controlling one’s image while being black and famous is higher than ever. No one understands this better than Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

In putting on a show that celebrated the diversity of black people, she conveyed that no matter how much fame or money she has, she will refuse to divorce herself from black culture, even the parts that are underappreciated, disrespected or misunderstood by white people. Beyoncé was performing her music, but she was also saying that the performance of respectability — the policing of black people’s behavior and appearance to better appeal to white people — is an oppression we don’t need in our lives. – excerpt from Myles E. Johnson in “Beyoncé and the End of Respectability Politics”

Homecoming is visually stunning. In summation, this documentary proves that Beyoncé has mastered the black visual aesthetic. No other artist of this era is giving themes of black women empowerment, black pride and black upward mobility quite like Bey has. Kendrick Lamar may be the only competition as far as championing the black aesthetic but K.Dot’s message is more steeped in black trauma and pain, while Beyoncé creates a space for unity and togetherness that’s particularly absent in Kendrick’s music and visual persona.

Litman and Dobbins have an issue with Beyoncé telling her own story and, also, the manner in which she tells it. During Homecoming, we see Yoncé championing her own vision, even when the producers of the performance seem to be a bit slow on the draw. Intense, intricate and entertaining performances of Bey’s stellar catalog buoy the film. We see scores of young. beautiful, black dancers and musicians practice, laugh and sing during rehearsals and in between performances. Throughout the film and in between concert footage, she narrates the creative process in building the two-weekend Coachella performances.

The soul of the film, though, is, undoubtedly, blackness, something that Litman and Dobbins never address. And maybe them being white women creates a blind spot that causes them not to fully recognize that. Divorcing Beyoncé from her blackness is impossible and she has made the cerebral decision to make it so; there’s power in the most famous entertainer today saying she’s black and she’s proud. To white women, seeing a story of a black woman struggling with pregnancy and child birth can generate sympathy, but once you learn that black women are almost four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related health issues than white women, then the success of Yoncé’s recovery and Beychella performance is given proper prospective.

While the movie does further elevate the mystique and legend of Mrs. Carter-Knowles, the reason for the elevation is because she pulled Beychella off without a hitch. She’s earned it and paid the iron price. To label a film as propaganda, then there has to be something that feels inauthentic and, flat out, shown as a lie, but there’s isn’t much to Homecoming to dispute. The concert was a beautiful triumph, and that’s because Beyoncé is the greatest performance artist of my generation. The film footage of her family was endearing because seeing beautiful children grow up is probably the greatest gift man can give himself. And the behind-the-scene’s footage of the college kids participating in Beychella is delightful because black kids creating art is the greatest gift we gave to the world.

Ringer staff writer Rob Harvilla wrote a fun overview of the film, but it lacked depth. Litman and Dobbins conversation, also, missed critical aspects of the film. For the best living entertainer today, what would qualify as good enough to earn serious coverage? Beyoncé has to control her own image because someone else may fuck it up.

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