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When Will Rappers Stop Being Used As Bait For Pop Hits?

One reader wonders if, during hip-hop's moment of prominence, rappers will stop being plucked solely for pop chart success.

One reader wonders if, during hip-hop's moment of prominence, rappers will stop being plucked solely for pop chart success.

We’ve all seen it before, when rising pop stars decide to undergo a major musical transformation as a sign of maturity. They will trade in Disney-approved, family-friendly lyrics for more risqué topics like one-night stands and long party benders. The production of their songs shifts from clean bubblegum-pop synths to rap-inspired grimy 808s. And the hemlines of their skirts rise higher as their newfound love for twerking becomes central to the overall new persona.

This move is nothing new in pop music, as artists like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake utilized the post-New Millennium era to shed their pop-centric skin. They quickly connected with producers and rappers favored amongst the black community, including Ying Yang Twins, R. Kelly, Redman, Pharrell, and Timbaland, respectively. There are many examples of predominantly white mainstream artists using the "urban" sound to boost their chart positions to the point where it’s become embarrassingly predictable. But with rap music officially becoming the most popular genre of 2017, this new year should diminish the trend of using rappers as bait for chart smashes. Now more than ever, especially in this post-Trump society, it is time to actively preserve the genre’s integrity.

For the first time in history, the combined genres of hip-hop and R&B dethroned rock as the biggest music genre in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music's 2017 year-end report. The statistics are courtesy of total music consumption, a metric that combines album sales with digital streams and song downloads. The Nielsen report states R&B and hip-hop are now responsible for 25.1 percent of all music consumption in the U.S., while rock comes in at 23 percent. There was also a 72 percent increase in streaming last year, with artists like Drake (who pushed 4.8 million album equivalent units) and Kendrick Lamar (3.7 million units) cited in the Top 10 most-listened of the year. It makes sense, as fans of rap music (especially the younger audience growing up in the SoundCloud era) are more likely to stream songs and albums instead of purchasing a physical copy.

Lil Uzi’s “XO Tour Llif3,” Future’s “Mask Off,” Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” are just some of the rap singles that soared on the Billboard Hot 100 and became hit radio staples. The 2017 Grammy Awards were also a reflection of rap’s popularity, with JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar among the most nominated artists of the night. So as the genre continues to prove itself as a mainstream necessity, mainly white pop singers who are craving a taste of that chart success have begun to latch onto its popularity for their singles.

The latest resurgence in this longtime trend can arguably be attributed to albums like Ariana Grande’s 2016 Dangerous Woman. The Platinum-selling record featured four guest artists, all of whom just happened to be black: Future (“Everyday”), Macy Gray (“Leave Me Lonely”), Nicki Minaj (“Side to Side,” which peaked at No. 4) and Lil Wayne (“Let Me Love You”). Pulling so-called “urban” artists soon became the norm for the new generation of pop stars, both male and female, as they witnessed these singles and others like them climb their way up the Hot 100. Following Gucci Mane’s prison release in 2016, the Atlanta star was plucked for pop songs sung by massive artists. He already earned respect in the local hip-hop communities, but who would want to stumble through a mainstream comeback when fresh out of jail?

Instead, Gucci utilized his signature warbled tone for songs like Fifth Harmony’s “Down” (which debuted and peaked at No. 42) and Selena Gomez’s “Fetish” (which peaked at No. 27). He also gave a boost to Blackbear’s “Do Re Mi” remix, which was entering the Top 40 before Gucci’s presence. Following their appearances on Dangerous Woman, Future and Lil Wayne later teamed up with more pop acts whose new era was marketed as “edgier.” Weezy dropped an unnecessary verse on Demi Lovato’s explicit Tell Me You Love Me cut “Lonely,” while Taylor Swift’s latest Reputation single “End Game” (which is currently in the Top 40) finds Future and Ed Sheeran sharing the spotlight.

But the main target of this trend is no doubt Migos, whose dominance in mainstream music has been unmatched. Their most recent album Culture II recently shot to No. 1 and they now share a legendary statistic with the Beatles for the most simultaneous entries on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart among groups. Specifically, Quavo has made the most pop-friendly appearances compared to Takeoff and Offset. His appeal most likely comes from an innate ability to craft radio-friendly hooks and easily digestible rap verses that can be shouted at any music festival across the country.

The group appeared on Calvin Harris’ 2x Platinum-selling “Slide” hit alongside Frank Ocean, as well as Katy Perry’s attempt at an urban single (she called it a “sexual liberation”)—Witness’ Gold-certified "Bon Appétit.” As for Quavo? He’s been busy hopping on Liam Payne’s debut solo track “Strip That Down,” a song that found the former One Directioner trading his safe boy band aesthetic for a style that was more raunchy. It later peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Quavo also appeared on Major Lazer’s “Know No Better” with Camila Cabello and Travis Scott, which may have led to Cabello’s “OMG” collaboration with the Migos star. The song didn’t fare well on the charts or radio, so it was later scrapped from her debut solo album. Quavo’s feature was forgotten as Cabello’s “Havana” dominated all streaming platforms and charts. But this time around, the smash single featured Young Thug.

“Havana” slowly caught the attention of the masses, gaining radio airplay traction as the former Fifth Harmony singer performed it at almost every late-night and morning talk show. “Havana” is now certified a whopping 3x Platinum only five months after its release and peaked at No. 1. In total, it spent 24 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and is currently sitting at the chart’s third slot. Many were quick to congratulate Cabello for acquiring the first hit single of her solo career. Yet what they’ve (including Cabello herself) failed to acknowledge is that Young Thug should be congratulated for his success as well, featured artist or otherwise. He has yet to perform “Havana” with the singer at a televised event and unfortunately will be pushed further out of its blinding spotlight as the song grows even bigger.

Most recently, Maroon 5 tapped rising Bronx rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie for the remix of their latest single “Wait.” The move calls for a raised eyebrow, as the strictly pop band has mainly black guest features on their new album Red Pill Blues… just like Ariana Grande. This time around, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, LunchMoney Lewis and A$AP Rocky all appear. Julia Michaels, the other guest artist, is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. This trend is becoming too much of a blatant decision to be regarded as just a coincidence.

The popularity of rap music is only going to flourish even more this year as its influence trickles from a mainstream U.S. audience into international markets. As 2018 continues on, hip-hop needs to be treated with more respect. These rappers should realize their worth in an industry that is ready to latch onto them because they’ve become such hot commodities. They should also choose features to be invested in, not because a label executive is forcing it or because a singer has decided to try out a new era on for size. "I also love that new Kendrick song: 'Show me somethin’ natural like a** with some stretch marks.' I love that because it’s not 'Come sit on my d**k, suck on my c**k.' I can’t listen to that anymore,” Miley Cyrus casually revealed in an interview last spring. “That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much 'Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k' — I am so not that."

With acts like Cyrus making it clear that they are using the genre for a quick hit come-up, it is crucial that rap music does its part—artists and producers, this means you, too—to make sure it doesn’t get sucked dry by cultural leeches only to be tossed out like a dirty 23 jersey.

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay Z at the Roc Nation and NFL Partnership Announcement at Roc Nation on August 14, 2019 in New York City.
Kevin Mazur

‘Inspire Change?’ NFL's Super Bowl PSAs Only Inspire More Skepticism

It’s been a few months into the NFL’s controversial “Inspire Change” initiative, a promotion by the league to highlight the Player’s Coalition and its work to address social issues. “Inspire Change” officially launched last year, (to “nurture and strengthen community through football and music,” said official statements) with the league’s partnership with Roc Nation expected to guide much of the outreach and voice.

"With its global reach, the National Football League has the platform and opportunity to inspire change across the country," Jay-Z said via press release back in August. "Roc Nation has shown that entertainment and enacting change are not mutually exclusive ideas -- instead, we unify them. This partnership is an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of communities across America."

The first “Inspire Change” ad featured the Botham Jean Foundation, and focused on the Jean family and their reaction to Botham’s 2018 death at the hands of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. Jean’s murder, in which Guyger shot the 26-year-old as he sat in his apartment after saying she’d believed it was her own, drew international attention. The subsequent trial and conviction of Guyger drew derision and criticism after the former officer was sentenced to ten years (with parole eligibility in five) amidst hugs from the prosecuting judge and official statements from the family that focused on forgiveness.

“He just loved people and he was very particular about the company he kept. So I felt he was not in harm’s way,” his mother, Allison Jean, says during the video.

The NFL debuted the Jean ad online in late January to a mixed reception, and a new ad was shown during Super Bowl LIV. In the new ad, former 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin is heard speaking about what happened to his cousin, Corey Jones, on the night of October 18, 2015. That night, Jones was shot and killed in Florida by a plainclothes police officer as Jones was stuck on the side of the road with car trouble.

“I was still playing with the 49ers and my wife walks up after the game and told me that my cousin Corey had been killed. Corey broke down on the side of the road and a plain clothed police officer pulled up. Then this guy starts screaming. All you hear from there is three shots.”

Both ads focus on family and loss: the first clip features footage of Botham Jean’s brother hugging his convicted murderer in court as Jean’s mother and father talk about forgiveness. In the second ad, Jones’ father tearily asks “Why? Why’s my son gone today? Why?” The human toll of these crimes is front-and-center, but as far as the institutions that have created this reality for so many non-white people in America, they’re comparatively peripheral in these clips. The word “police” is never uttered, and while the tagline is “We’re all in this together,” there is nothing on screen to suggest racism is the common enemy. It’s cozy to posit that “we” are the solution, but what’s the point if I don’t have the fortitude to declare that you are the problem?

When Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL was announced just before the start of the 2018-2019 NFL season, many saw it was a mogul putting business before social justice. After all, the league had kept Colin Kaepernick on the sidelines for three years, and Jay supposedly supported Kaep and his protest—so why get in bed with the league that had effectively blackballed the quarterback? There didn’t seem to be any benefit in Roc Nation partnering with the NFL—outside of the NFL being able to save some face after losing some fans because of the treatment of Kaepernick. Working with a mogul who, in recent years, has become a symbol of Woke™ Celebritydom, could go a long way towards softening the league’s image as one that defers to good ol’ boyism. The most skeptical saw the initiative as a chance for the NFL to score cool points while using Jay-Z’s brand to do it. And with these new ads, those cynics have been proven right.

The hope behind these ads is that they will inspire the more ambivalent or right-leaning members of the NFL’s viewing audience to take up the cause that the league itself effectively punished Colin Kaepernick for protesting. That side of the NFL’s audience has made it clear that it does not commiserate with Kaepernick or his cause, but these ads are supposed to be what sways them. These ads are supposed to start a conversation. Roc Nation also pressed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to commit $100 million to social justice outreach, and Jay-Z has emphasized that he did not do this deal for anything other than a chance to use the platform to raise awareness on the issues.

It’s a stance that Jay has been voicing since that first announcement in August. “As long as real people are being hurt and marginalized and losing family members, then yes, I can take a couple rounds of negative press,” Jay said this week in an interview with The New York Times. He also said that he feels for what’s happened with Kaepernick (a workout this fall turned into a debacle for all parties involved), but he feels that what Roc Nation is doing is pushing things forward.

“No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong. He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’

“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s go make some money off the N.F.L.’”

Nonetheless, the NFL’s “Inspire Change” campaign feels more like a big-budget facelift for a league that still struggles with who it is and who it wants to sell itself to; as opposed to a lucrative corporation finding its conscience. In 2016, famed director Spike Lee was hired as a “consultant” for the NYPD when the department wanted to create initiatives to “build trust with minority communities.” Roc Nation’s cosign amidst the “Inspire Change” campaign feels like a similar maneuver from the NFL. These ads stoke emotion without indictment, evoking the murders of Botham Jean and Corey Jones at the hands of police officers, but focusing on sentimentality and not how and where reformation is needed. Jay has become someone who wears his “activist celebrity” tag on his sleeve, but how do moguls truly benefit causes? From his role in Barclays Center and the gentrification that accompanied its opening, to his deal with Barneys--can he truly occupy both worlds? Jay-Z wants Roc Nation's work with the NFL to push people to act, for everyone to see themselves in these victims. But the NFL can’t soft soap this and expect anyone to take any of this seriously. You can’t truly “inspire change” with post-woke pandering—or by helping conglomerates save face.

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Shakira performs onstage during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Shakira's Cultural Homages During The Super Bowl Halftime Show Deserve A Standing Ovation

Now that the glitter and fireworks have settled in Miami after Jennifer Lopez and Shakira's Super Bowl Halftime performances, the ladies are getting their just due props for incorporating Latinx, Arabic, and black/African culture into their sets.

Shakira's homages were the most prominent Sunday (Feb. 2) with many mocking her "tongue-wagging" which was a nod to her Lebanese roots. Known as zaghrouta, the act is one of celebration and joy often done to express gleeful emotions at weddings and graduations. The 43-year-old (Sunday was her birthday) was born and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia, by her Lebanese father and Spanish/Italian mother. The singer, whose name is Arabic for "grateful," has talked about her mixed heritage and how it played a big role in her music and performances (think her iconic Bellydancing or her punk-rock era).

“I am a fusion. That’s my persona. I'm a fusion between black and white, between pop and rock, between cultures — between my Lebanese father and my mother’s Spanish blood, the Colombian folklore and Arab dance I love and American music," she told Faze Magazine in the early aughts. "I was born and raised in Colombia, but I listened to bands like Led Zeppelin, the Cure, the Police, The Beatles, and Nirvana. I was so in love with that rock sound but at the same time because my father is of 100 percent Lebanese descent, I am devoted to Arabic tastes and sounds."

 Zaghrouta was heard loud and clear during her performance of the 1998 classic “Ojos Así," which is also one of the few songs in her catalog to feature Arabic on it. She also tapped Afro-Colombian dancer Liz Dany Campo Diaz to help incorporate champeta into her performance. A dance from her hometown, the moves are traced back to African ancestors. It also has a similar groove to South African pantsula dance routines which some may remember from Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)" music video.

Btw this dance is called Champeta and it is originated in Shakira’s hometown of Branquilla Colombia! It’s respected for its footwork and it’s an important part of Colombian culture 💃🏼 pic.twitter.com/JtcLsl9sm9

— SHAKIRABOWL2020 (@Exmotions) February 3, 2020

The singer also danced to another Afro-Colombian routine called mapalé, importantly at the start of her performance. The moves (including the beautiful sea of Afro-Latinx dancers) was a sight to see at one of the most-watched shows all over the world.

The initial eyebrow raises of a Colombian pop singer at the Super Bowl Halftime Show made sense but the singer was thoughtful in the songs she picked (her 2008 World Cup hit "Waka Waka" (This Time For Africa)" is a remake of the 1986 song "Zamina Mina" by Cameroonian makossa group Zangaléwa) and even more mindful in her riffs (she repeated with passion the "no fighting" lyric during her performance of "Hips Don't Lie"). In all, Shakira's set will be one hell of a cultural study in years to come.

Jennifer Lopez also made subtle political statements during her performance. Her set was a pleasant blend of her Vegas and "It's My Party" tour sprinkled with some of her newfound pole skills from her performance in Hustlers. Swing Latino, a competitive world-champion salsa group from Colombia returned to the stage with the singer as they previously were special guests during her "Party" tour dates. It took her On The 6 single "Let's Get Loud" to new heights as the group brought together swing dancing, a very Americana dance, and salsa on the stage.

 

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A post shared by SwingLatino | official account (@swinglatino_cali) on Feb 2, 2020 at 7:56pm PST

A treat for pop culture fanatics, J. Lo's five outfits were customed made by Versace which we can give a smirk to. There's also the undeniable presence of Parris Goebel, who choreographed Lopez's entire Super Bowl performance. The two met back in 2012 when Goebel worked on her world tour and the American Idol season 11 finale where Lopez sang her 2012 hit, "Dance Again."

But it was the presence of her daughter Emme Maribel Muñoz singing with her that captured the audience. What many did miss was how the 11-year-old along with other children, appeared in silver cages, pointing towards the immigration and family separation policies the country has enforced at the southern border. "Let's Get Loud" then collided with a cover of "Born In The USA" with Lopez touting a feathered American flag with the Puerto Rican flag on the other side.

 

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Emme Daddy is so proud of you. You are my ❤ and I am forever yours.

A post shared by Marc Anthony (@marcanthony) on Feb 2, 2020 at 6:19pm PST

You can't please everyone, but their performances were one of precision. The two living legends who don't need validation from anyone were in control and commanded the attention of everyone, including those who make it difficult for Latinx families to live their version of the American dream. We like to imagine that the two singers also learned from each other, especially J. Lo since some cultural stances go over her head. "Let’s show the world what two little Latin girls can do," Lopez said on Instagram before their takeover. And that's exactly what they did.

Rewatch their performances below.

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Terry Crews speaks onstage during Steven Tyler's Third Annual GRAMMY Awards Viewing Party to benefit Janie’s Fund presented by Live Nation at Raleigh Studios on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Anna Webber/Getty Images for Janie's Fund

Terry Crews, 'America's Got Talent' And The Conditional Solidarity Of Celebrity

Terry Crews is doing quite a spectacular job of torching any goodwill the public had toward him. The actor moved from tertiary to central figure in the ongoing controversy surrounding NBC’s popular talent show America’s Got Talent and its November firing of former co-host Gabrielle Union.

Union has stated that there was a toxic environment on set, citing the behavior of producer Simon Cowell, and an incident involving a racist joke she says was made by guest host Jay Leno and other instances where she felt AGT and NBC had not addressed racist or sexist behavior and policies on the show.

Terry Crews offered mild support for Union upon her initial firing but has drawn the ire of fans this week after he offered a less empathetic take about the situation during an interview with the Today show.

“First of all, I can’t speak for sexism because I’m not a woman, but I can speak on behalf of any racism comments. That was never my experience on America’s Got Talent,” the AGT host said. “In fact, it was the most diverse place I have ever been in my 20 years of entertainment.”

When asked if he’d spoken to Union, Crews offered, “I have reached out, but I have not heard anything.”

The online reaction was critical, with fans and pundits pointing out that Union had been one of Crews’ most vocal supporters in 2017 when the actor revealed and then testified that he’d been a victim of sexual assault by a Hollywood studio executive. With the flurry of criticism, Crews scoffed at his detractors, tweeting that there’s only one woman in his life who he works to please—his wife.

“There is only one woman on earth I have to please. Her name is Rebecca,” the 52-year-old tweeted. “Not my mother, my sister, my daughters or co-workers. I will let their husbands/ boyfriends/ partners take care of them. Rebecca gives me WINGS.”

Crews’ statements—and his nonsensical Twitter reaction to his critics—were disappointing for anyone who’d hoped Union wouldn’t be left out to dry in her fight against a very powerful corporate entity. When there was an opportunity to support a person who’d been vocal in her support of him, Crews chose to lean on his own experiences in a way that would obviously pave the way for America’s Got Talent to cast hers into dispersion. This entire debacle has been reminiscent of other high-profile instances where Black celebs offered criticism in the wake of solidarity—either focused on the comforts of celebrity or preoccupied with the trajectory of their careers.

Mo’Nique famously engaged in a feud with streaming service Netflix, after she felt the giant lowballed her in regards to a proposed stand-up special. The star had been branded “difficult” for years and she’d felt blackballed by Hollywood notables like Oprah Winfrey and Lee Daniels, whom she worked with in 2009's Precious. It was her performance in that film that landed her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2010.

When Mo’Nique appeared on Steve to discuss her proposed boycott of Netflix and the blackballing, her longtime friend Harvey chastised the Oscar-winner. “We’re fighting two wars here,” Harvey said. “There’s two wars, it’s what your issue is and is what the perception of the issue is.”

Mo’Nique’s stance was that she was fighting for equality—for women and for Black comics—in her battle with Netflix. In regards to her stance on Winfrey and Daniels, she was fighting to be paid for extensive travel and promotion. To her, this was a fight for the right to say “no” in Hollywood.

“Now, I said ‘no’ to some very powerful people...the difficulty came in when people that looked like me, like Oprah, Tyler [Perry], Lee Daniels—and I got to put my brother Steve on the list. Y’all knew that I was not wrong. Each one of you said to me, ‘Mo’Nique, you’re not wrong.’ And when I heard you go on the air and say, ‘My sister burned too many bridges, and it’s nothing I can do for her now,’ Steve, do you know how hurt I was?”

“I would have appreciated it, had my brother called me up and said, ‘let’s talk,’” she also said.

But Harvey was adamant that Mo’Nique’s wounds were self-inflicted, dismissing any notion of solidarity for what she was fighting for. Instead, he scolded her.

“This problem that you had at Netflix are rich people problems,” Harvey told her. “Because they’re looking at us saying, ‘you’re talking about millions, well, you got this, so you oughta be cool.'”

“I felt you had done yourself a disservice by the way you chose to go about it. When you tell the truth, you have to deal with the repercussions of the truth. We black out here. We can’t come out here and do it any kind of way we want to.”

“Black people can’t do that” was always poor logic for not standing up for oneself, and Harvey’s take on Mo’Nique may have been more egregiously condescending than Crews and Union but it also reveals how “my career” can trump “you were right” when it’s time to show solidarity. It’s also important to understand that you can’t only see “the problem” via your own “experiences”—what you’ve experienced isn’t the sum total of what goes on. And waiting until the wackness affects you will have you dismissing the oppression of those who may not be in your position.

Five years ago, rapper A$AP Rocky was at the center of a firestorm after he dismissed the idea of rapping about the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Md., at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. The incident sparked weeks of unrest, as citizens gathered to protest police violence against Black communities, with artists like J. Cole and Talib Kweli offering support.

“Why would I feel compelled to rap about Ferguson?” Rocky said at the time during an interview with TimeOut New York. “I’m not about to say that I was down there throwing rocks at motherfuckers, getting pepper-sprayed. I’d be lying…I live in fucking Soho and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

When Rocky found himself imprisoned in Sweden in 2019 for assault, the rapper’s old interview came back to haunt him. Many of his peers called for his release and railed against what they felt was a racist overreaction as Rocky faced up to six years in prison for what was essentially a fight. As his supporters pleaded his case, many online called back to Rocky’s dismissiveness when he was asked to offer support for the protests in Ferguson.

In an early January sitdown with Kerwin Frost, Rocky offered an explanation for his words in 2015. “In those old interviews, I used to say ‘I think it’s inappropriate for me to rap about things I didn’t help with… I felt like when it came to Ferguson, J. Cole went down there and he actually was on the news and he helped. I felt like he deserved to rap about it. So when someone [asked] me that in 2015 I’m like: ‘I just feel, personally, if I’m in SoHo or I’m here I can’t even talk on that’… That’s appropriating.

“It’s not sincere. It’s pretentious.”

Black voices can often be scorned when they’re facing off against powerful gatekeepers; that those in positions to amplify those voices can so often decide to take the more “practical” route of undermining or outright dismissing those voices in the most public forums is just evidence of how much the upward mobility of the individual can blind them to the bigger picture. When Rocky had to deal with what it meant to face law enforcement while young and Black, when Terry Crews had to stare down a powerful Hollywood entity who’d wronged him—they fully understood what oppression can feel like. When Steve Harvey finger-wagged Mo’Nique on a high-profile platform, he did so acknowledging the sliding scale that Black people face. Supporting each other when “that’s not my experience” means not undermining the fight against powers-that-be. Because being able to retreat “my experiences” is the greatest privilege. Hopefully, someone will remind Terry Crews.

Editor's Note: Terry Crews has tweeted an apology to Gabrielle Union saying, "I want you to know it was never my intention to invalidate your experience— but that is what I did. I apologize."

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