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Is It All Over My Race: Disco's Perpetual Gentrification

According to one writer, disco has suffered a proverbial whitewashing over time.

In April of 2011, LCD Soundsystem delivered more than three hours of their much-hallowed nu-disco sound to 18,000 fervent devotees at Madison Square Garden. This sold-out crowd was the culmination of a rebranding of disco that has its roots in the post-punk era, but gained considerable traction in the mid-90s. Thirty five years after ireful, white rock ‘n’ roll fans drove disco out, one of the world’s most well-known arenas was radiant with people celebrating it. The original disco—propelled by labels like Salsoul and West End—and built by a mostly gay community of color, suffered a devastating coup de gråce in 1979 at the hands of disdainful white rock fans. But in 2011, it was mainly young, white people dancing to it.

The nu-disco jubilee had been brewing for at least 10 years. Many alternative music fans encountered their first dalliance with disco with Roger Avary’s 2001 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction. The Rapture’s Out of the Races And Onto the Tracks, which the film featured prominently in a party scene, landed like a collective gut-punch that helped ignite said rebranding within a community that traditionally held dear the mantra: “disco sucks.”

Disco’s latest reincarnation parallels the death of punk. In the late 90s, punk was over. Depending on who you ask, it had been dead and buried for years. Bands like !!!, Radio 4, and later, LCD Soundsystem were tired of “standing around at shows” and wanted to make music they could play in a club. Taking cues from bands like Gang of Four and Liquid Liquid, they combined their punk attitude with danceable rhythms. The resulting disco-punk changed the so-called “alternative” music fan’s perception of the once disdained genre. These predominantly white bands wiped away the campy stigma of disco’s yesteryear by cleansing it with a punk sensibility. Disco became safe for straight, white masses in thrift-store tees and skinny jeans. This wasn’t the first time disco had been the subject of an attempted gentrification.

1977’s Saturday Night Fever marked a turning point in disco’s popularity. A genre that defined itself by creating a haven of expression for gay youth of color was “pulled out of the closet,” so to speak. John Travolta and The Bee Gees—straight, jockish stars—introduced the suburban masses to this new obsession. But despite its wide acceptance, the gay and black elements remained surprisingly intact. Openly gay artists like Sylvester and the ornate Village People shared in the chart and club domination with their white, straight counterparts. The mainstream’s attempted sterilization of the culture didn’t fully take. That’s why in the eyes of many, the sanitized rendition of the edgy movement needed to be put to rest.

In the late 70s, rock ‘n’ roll was rapidly losing its foothold to a flamboyant genre steeped in queer and brown roots. Nevermind that for every Village People, rock had it’s own overblown character like a cape-wearing Rick Wakeman. But rock ‘n’ roll was America’s music—a straight, white (funny considering where it came from), testosterone-fueled genre. There was no room at the top for a fringe culture that required primping and dance lessons.

Music critics and historians have begun to accept that blatant homophobia and racism had a heavy hand in the “killing” of disco in 1979. As its impact widened, so did resentment from the rock ‘n’ roll community who saw their favorite artists like KISS and Rolling Stones hopping on the bandwagon. Steve Dahl, a rock DJ on Chicago’s WDAI, was the opposition’s messiah. When low ratings caused the station to change formats to disco, Dahl lost his job, and an enemy was born. His initial displeasure turned into a full-blown vendetta that would later culminate in one of the most bizarre and out-of control mass-displays of intolerance in recent American music history: Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where rock fans were given reduced entry in exchange for a disco record to burn.

This display of hate marked the seemingly overnight decline of disco’s grasp over the airwaves. As disco’s popularity waned, so did budgets for promotion and production. Labels shut down, and disco slowly died—at least on the mainstream level. With only the occasional disco success towards the end of the 70’s (like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall), rock fans saw this as a win for all that was good and right in America.

Dahl now claims it’s academically lazy to assert that the disco backlash had roots in racism or homophobia. For rock fans, he says it was a moment in time to fight for the music and lifestyle they loved. But why not celebrate rock instead of deriding another genre? Especially in a city as segregated as Chicago, it’s incredibly suspect to violently advocate for the silencing of an entire genre that also happens to be the most far-removed from the whiteness of the rock ‘n’ roll they were defending. A rock ‘n’ roll no one is terribly concerned with defending in 2017.

Although, it’s not like disco sat dormant for 25 years waiting for a white savior to rescue it from rock’s crushing blow. It continued in different forms—it even intermingled with punk on occasion—and birthed house music out of necessity. Young bedroom producers like Vince Lawrence, Jesse Saunders and Frankie Knuckles filled the dance void with their brand of electronic disco. House thrived both in underground scenes and within pop-music. But eventually it, too, suffered from a severe whitewashing.

The multi-billion dollar industry that has popped up around EDM leaves almost no trace of its origins intact. “Now there's so many average suburban white kids at house music festivals that you hardly see any black kids at all,” claims Vince Lawrence, one of house music’s pioneers in Red Bull’s documentary about Disco Demolition Night. The pyrotechnics, massive light shows and cakes in people’s faces are a far cry from the scene at David Mancuso’s loft, where balloon-covered walls were at times the only decorations for the late night/early morning dance worship sessions.

There will always be a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Inspiration is complex. It’s not always fair to criticize musicians who choose to celebrate a culture they admire through their own music. Daft Punk’s “Teachers” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” both acknowledge their inspiration. It’s even arguable that LCD Soundsystem, Disclosure and many of dance music’s recent wunderkinds are some of the most important artists of our time. Undoubtedly, many green-to-disco LCD fans were turned on to older dance music artists as a result of their affinity for the latter. It’s through reexaminations of the past that people like Chic’s Nile Rodgers are pushed back into the spotlight, or relatively unknown artists like Arthur Russell enjoy a posthumous uptick.

Still, in 2017, with infinite access to music and its history, the music industry and by proxy, consumers, continue to sweep originators under the rug. Disco was rebranded as nu-disco or “electro,” House became EDM, dancehall and afrobeat are considered “tropical house.” Rebranded terms that often erase its cultural origins.

How can we get to a place where the general public doesn’t have to be tricked into tolerance via an auditory trojan horse? It seems as though the obvious lessons of the past (the Elvises, the Led Zeppelins, etc.) would have taught us to look a little deeper by now. But all we can do is continue the conversation, and shine a light on the true inventors. Then one day, maybe it won’t take a musical gentrification to normalize them.

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Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarrasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize Tyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends, and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, it's in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit—even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken Sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

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Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

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John Witherspoon arrives on the red carpet at the world premiere of Columbia Pictures' "Hancock," June 30, 2008 at Grauman?s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California.
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A Word On John Witherspoon: The Black Voice Of Reason And Unfiltered Comedic Joy

You gotta be a real one to be called “Pops” where I'm from. Anybody with a little snow on the roof and a story to tell can be an “old head” but “Pops” is somebody who you actually want to listen to. With a smile and a wink, Pops will instruct you to heed the angel on your shoulder but leave a little room for what the devil has to say too.

John Witherspoon was was all of those things.

He was “Pops.”

John Witherspoon neé Weatherspoon was born in Detroit, Michigan–the northern soul of Black folks. The comedian, writer, and part-time model exuded Black cool without trying. There’s a select ring of respect for performers who were able to guest star on both TV shows like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because he could make all of us laugh. In those moments, he managed to inspire many of the comedians shining on the stage and on the screen.

“Everyone young and old had a reason to love John Witherspoon and his self-awareness to remain connected to the community that loved him,” says The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr. "The loyalty to his roots was reflected in his material which remained as relevant now as it was when he started his career.”

Spoon’s work speaks for itself. The man worked as a cast member on The Richard Pryor Show, played the ill-tempered boss in Hollywood Shuffle and guest-starred on Good Times, 227 and Amen (look it up). Basically, if it was Black and funny, you had to have Witherspoon and his specialized brand of comedy come through and make a sitcom writing staff look like geniuses.

His star turns on those legendary shows pale in comparison to what he gave us on June 28, 1992– the day Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang debuted in theaters.

In only 3 minutes and twenty seconds of screentime, he gave us “COOOOOrdinate” “Don’t be p***y whipped, whip dat p***y!” and the phrase that would be his calling card, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I don’t give a damn how funny, original, or scene-stealing you call yourself, if you claim to have never quoted Willie Jones from Boomerang, I’ll call you a liar.

”John Witherspoon was the guy who felt like family and you could always depend on making you laugh,” says comedian Yamaneika Saunders. "Put it this way, the man stood toe to toe with Eddie in his own damn movie, using only a guest spot. There’s no such thing as small roles. If they give you one line, make it the one line everybody remembers. But Pops tripled up on it."

Legend is a word overused when we talk about our greats who have moved on to that leisure suit in the sky, but Spoon gifted us with over five generations of comedy.

His relevance was staked in his ability to reinvent. Comedian Aminah Imani recently opened for him at the DC Improv, making her dreams a bigger reality. “The one thing that gives me peace of mind is the fact that he was loved and adored by his fans,” she says. “I was introduced to him in Boomerang, I grew up with him on Friday and The Wayans Bros., and I learned about how the world works through Grandpa, Huey, and Riley on The Boondocks."

 

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When he convinces Ice Cube’s character, Craig in Friday how our generation is so quick to pick up a gun because we're “too scared to take an ass whoopin” ...we felt that. So many Black men in Detroit, Chicago, Philly, and many other cities across the country avoided a fatal outcome because Pops told us to use the only two weapons God gave us. “You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day.” Those thirteen words granted many of us to have another day to fight for.

While “America’s Dad” may have gone on a couple of years ago, Pops was right there all along. Always working.  Always there for us.

I can’t even fully open a new pair of sneakers without crooning “new shoes, neeeew shooo-ooes,” like his Granddad character from The Boondocks. Inside of every Black man exists a mix of a conscious-outthink-your-enemy like Huey and a chest-out-in-ignorance Riley-like character that are dually at odds.

Witherspoon’s Grandad was the voice of reason we'd aspire to mature into. It’s a holy trinity of our daily battle against making the wrong decisions. You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day.

Legacy is not appreciated as much as it should be in Black entertainment. We like to differentiate between generations and downplay anyone not doing as better as yesterday's icons. But John Witherspoon was a direct plug between Pryor and the many young up-and-coming comedians he was gracious enough to let open for him.

Comedian Lil Rel had plans to showcase some of that legacy soon with Witherspoon in mind. “The crazy thing was how I was talking to my publicist last week about creating a real show or special or something that celebrated our Black superstars that don’t necessarily get the Hollywood legend tap until they pass away,” he reflects. “I only thought more about that after watching John Witherspoon on the DL Hughley Show. This dude is a damn legend and we haven’t for honored him for that.”

He wasn’t too cool to do an Instagram video of him cooking with no shirt, while still headlining clubs and colleges all over the country well into his 70s. My condolences pour out to his wife of 31 years Angela, and sons Alexander and John David. We just say thank you for sharing him with us.

They remain the same for any black comedian who has done the following:

Needed a line from a movie to make everyone laugh. Understood the importance of Witherspoon’s business decisions in the world of comedy. Who needed a word from Pops to simply tell us what to do.

Bang, Bang, Bang.

Clark Jones is a comedian who starred in shows like Crashing and Night Train With Wyatt Cenac. He's also the host of the Classic Black Dude podcast. Get a laugh or two in from his socials @theeclarkjones. 

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The Amber Guygers Of The World Don't Deserve Black Forgiveness

Forgiveness isn’t an easy pill for me to swallow. As a writer, it could be the actual word that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it's because had it not been “for” one’s actions then I wouldn’t be forced to “give” you, the transgressor, a grace you’ve proven undeserving of.

The mental and emotional gymnastics a victim must complete in order to get to a place of healing is too great for me to believe the offenses—whatever they may be—are mere mistakes, and when you are black in America that realization is crystallized with every acquittal.

Botham Jean was in his apartment watching his television and eating his ice cream on the night of September 6, 2018, when Dallas officer Amber Guyger barged in and shot the St. Lucian businessman because she confused his home for hers.

I remember reading about the Rodney King verdict and can recall exactly where I stood in New York City’s Penn Station when I learned of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. I have accepted that the justice system does not believe in "justice for all" its citizens and was fully prepared for Guyger to be found not guilty.

In a surprising turn of events, she was convicted. However, this is America. Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, I knew a slap in the face wouldn’t be too far away. The next day, it was revealed at Guyger’s sentencing she would serve 10 years in prison, just above the minimum. Prosecutors asked for 28 years, one for each of Jean’s life.

Kalief Browder served a third of Guyger’s 10-year sentence for a book bag that was never found by an accuser who was never publicly named.

Yet among all the topics that trended following Guyger’s sentencing, "forgiveness" was the most pronounced. At the tail end of 2019 and at the height of cancel culture, forgiveness—the act of showing softness and grace to those who deeply puncture you—became a polarizing talking point when Botham Jean’s brother hugged Guyger in the courtroom.

In America, forgiveness has always been a bitter root shoved down the throats of the oppressed by the oppressors, and it is my radical belief that my people’s empathy and breathtaking forgiveness aids in our own mental bondage. We are of flesh and bone just like those who deny us our humanity and kill us, yet even in our own justifiable grief, we’ve been taught (or adapted for survival) to soothe those who kill us. Maybe it’s because we know another blow will come soon and we must make room for future disappointments.

An argument can be made that true healing cannot take place without forgiveness, but who hugged Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, Gwen Carr, Geneva Reed-Veal or Samaria Rice? Who draped their arms lovingly around the men and women who buried their children in some instances, a mere 12 years after their birth?

The embrace between Brandt Jean and Guyger will be tokenized as the gold standard in how one should move on from tragedy, but where is the how-to on not shooting and killing an unarmed black person? Where is that righteous symbol of compassion for other police officers to follow?

Surviving family members from the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting also forgave domestic-terrorist Dylann Storm Roof for killing their loved ones in their place of worship.

There is no beauty in the oppressed having to be bigger and emotionally better than those who cause our oppression and pain. The Samson-like strength needed to simmer one’s rage, sadness and maybe desire for revenge shouldn’t be diluted. And yet, for Guyger to be on the receiving end of a hug after bestowing bullets into Botham Jean’s flesh is a lopsided exchange of humanity that has been our responsibility to bear.

How much social justice currency did the hug heard 'round the world gain us? The oppressed must bear the weight of injustice, teach you how to recognize our humanity, and then shower you with kindness after you wrong us?

Go hug your damn self.

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