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The 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced Monday, Jan. 13 and, after a few years of glad-handing their supposed embrace of diversity, the Academy’s nominees were once again a distressingly predictable bunch—particularly amongst the major award categories. Bemoaning lack of diversity at the Oscars has become a punchline unto itself, but, for an Academy that is suddenly so image-conscious, this was a step backward. Alongside a Best Director field made up exclusively of men, Black actors were almost totally shut out in the top categories. Strong performances from previous Oscar winners/nominees like Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx seemed to be likely contenders for a nomination but were snubbed. There is the notable exception, of course, of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony-winning actress received an Oscar nod for her turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a film that seemed to engender both praise and derision well before it opened in theaters in November 2019.
The British-born Erivo was at the center of much criticism when it was announced that she would be playing the legendary Tubman, the escaped slave born Araminta Ross, who led at least 13 trips along a treacherous journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to free first her family, then others in bondage; she also became an officer in the Union army and an activist for women’s suffrage. The casting of Erivo as Tubman became a flashpoint after tweets from the actress were widely publicized in which she appeared to mock Black Americans in a Twitter exchange with actor Joel Montague after he asked her to sing a song she’d written.
“@joalMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx.”
The tweet was screenshotted and popped up on countless media sites, as the public criticism of Erivo grew. As she began making media rounds in the lead-up to Harriet, she addressed the issue.
"I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn't take it lightly," Erivo said in an interview with Shadow And Act back in October. "I love this woman and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.
“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant—and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”
But the bad will had taken root. Harriet had a successful opening and a strong showing at the box office, but it was met with derision on Twitter as rumors swirled about various aspects of the film’s plot and historical inaccuracies. The word of mouth reception was far from glowing, but the borderline smearing of the film on social media was more scathing than the actual reviews once the movie hit theaters. But while the critical reception to the film itself was lukewarm, Erivo’s performance was consistently praised. “The British singer and actress…nails [Tubman’s] thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence,” wrote Owen Gleiberman of Variety; and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott felt that “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love.” In an age when Black pain on the big screen can make for predictable platitudes from pundits, there is an ongoing question of who such a film as Harriet is meant to speak to and speak for. In the case of Erivo, you have more than a strong performance in a middling film. You have a performer who has, in many ways, lost the audience that would’ve been most invested in that performance.
Erivo's nomination for Harriet comes alongside a double-nod for Scarlett Johannson, another actress who found herself embroiled in controversy in 2019. Of course, ScarJo is much more high-profile than Erivo, an A-lister who finds herself in any number of prestige pictures and major blockbusters. But ScarJo’s defense of Woody Allen, at a time when Hollywood is at least attempting to come to grips with how it has enabled abusers, drew gasps and derision when she made press runs for her role in the acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story. She told Vanity Fair in November:
“I’m not a politician, and I can’t lie about the way I feel about things,” she said. “I don’t have that. It’s just not a part of my personality. I don’t want to have to edit myself or temper what I think or say. I can’t live that way. It’s just not me. And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it’s going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that’s kind of par for the course, I guess.
“Even though there’s moments where I feel maybe more vulnerable because I’ve spoken my own opinion about something, my own truth and experience about it—and I know that it might be picked apart in some way, people might have a visceral reaction to it—I think it’s dangerous to temper how you represent yourself because you’re afraid of that kind of response. That, to me, doesn’t seem very progressive at all. That seems scary.”
Johansson’s controversial statements surrounding Woody Allen (and earlier comments about her playing trans and Asian characters) were met with widespread criticism that was subsequently muted by the acclaim following her turns in both Marriage Story and the WWII-set period comedy JoJo Rabbit. They weren’t misguided or misrepresented tweets from six years ago, they are her expressed positions on the subjects; she’s announced that she doesn’t intend to continuously apologize or even recant where she stands. And at the end of the day, she’s now a two-time Oscar nominee.
Obviously, Erivo is also basking in the recent glow of Academy recognition. This isn’t a case of a white actress bouncing back from backlash while a Black actress fades into obscurity because of it. But when Scarlett Johansson walks the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, if she takes the stage after her name is read as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress or both, she won’t have to contend with the idea that those who have given her the award stand in stark contrast to those for whom she wanted the film to resonate. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn’t have to wrestle with the idea that she’s only the second woman of her background to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She won’t have to face the hurt that she and others like her were shut out in her native country’s biggest movie award. She won’t have to think about all the criticisms of “slave movies” and being nominated for being in one.
Whatever criticisms there may be of Cynthia Erivo, whatever criticisms there may be of the film in which she starred, there’s always a softer landing for those who don’t have darker skin; simply because being Black on the whitest of nights means that all eyes are on you. It also means you have to carry so much more than your white counterparts will ever be asked to shoulder. Oscar or no Oscar; criticism of Cynthia Erivo never required condemnation of Cynthia Erivo. But on a night when white actresses will once again be widely represented, from the reliable grace of Little Women to the martyr-making propaganda of Bombshell, it’s disappointing that this one Black actress being amongst them is going to be picked apart.
The moment I knew Burna Boy had that star factor was the moment I heard a track that wasn’t even his. It was, rather, his featured vocals on DJ Spinall’s first, March 2014 single “Gba Gbe E.” Produced by Spellz, the afrofusion artist rides the wave of the uptempo, high energy instrumental, where he gifts our ears with a praise song bigging up veteran Nigerian reggae (galala) artist, Daddy Showkey. The tone and texture in his voice are distinct while he delivers his lyrics effortlessly. I would soon realize that the African Giant is serious about his craft.
Five years later, Burna Boy, born Damini Ogulu, released his fourth studio album and landed his first Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album last week. For those who’ve been following the 28-year-old’s career from its inception, this nod comes as no surprise. If anything, it’s about time.
A native of Port Harcourt, Nigeria and the grandson of Benson Idonije—Fela Kuti’s former manager—it seems that legacy and connection points to Burna’s destiny of being a rockstar for the people. He’s steadfast in paying homage to the afrobeat legend seamlessly throughout his repertoire, even pre-African Giant.
He first made a statement with his debut studio album, L.I.F.E (Leaving an Impact for Eternity), which dropped in 2013 and peaked at No.7 on Billboard‘s Reggae Albums chart. That LP holds his hits “Like to Party,” “Tonight,” and “Yawa Dey.” His 2015 sophomore album, On A Spaceship, introduced us to “Soke,” a reflective, critical track on the current state of Nigeria that ironically was (and still is) in heavy rotation at African parties. He also took this project as an opportunity to address the controversies that surrounded him and the “bad boy” image critics claimed he emanated. Burna’s 2016 EP Redemption took it a step further, giving us another poignant, introspective single with “Pree Me.” Then the shift happened in his favor.
Outside, Burna Boy’s third studio album, which also peaked on the same reggae chart at No. 3 in 2018, was his afrofusion manifesto. It was his mined diamond that showed us his range. Tapping the likes of Lily Allen, J Hus and Mabel as features, sampling Fabolous and Tamia’s “So Into You” in “Giddem,” as well as giving us a replacement Nigerian national anthem with “Ye,” Burna Boy exists on a genre-less plane. Intentionally pulling from a plethora of sounds on the album including afrobeat, pop, R&B, dancehall, grime—he had something for everyone in this project and it oozed with replay value. His most recent project African Giant was, in short, a mic drop and an extension of his brand's global takeover; it solidified what would be his crossover moment.
Over the past decade, African pop acts from across the continent, and Nigeria especially, have been working above and beyond to widen their reach, step on the world’s stage and aspire for mainstream nods like a Grammy nomination. Attaining and reaching towards those goals involves the inevitable crossover. Although Burna Boy has said he’s continuing to be himself, to be an ambassador of Africa and not concern himself with the typical workings of a crossover, it’s clear that this Grammy nod is a result of a successful one.
Let’s take a closer look at the three factors of Burna Boy’s success and what rising African pop acts can learn from his journey to-date.Branding
It pays for an artist to act on being their own brand and use moments of visibility to their advantage. Being meticulous with the details is key. For example, in celebration of selling out the O2 Brixton Academy in London, Burna Boy held a pop-up event and sold limited-edition boxes of Space Puffs cereal and more custom merch the day before the show in October 2018. Just that week, he was Spotify’s Afro Hub Takeover Artist and was also named Youtube’s Artist on the Rise. The lucky ones who were able to snag an item from that pop-up have something tangible that memorializes these markers of the come-up in Burna’s career.
Burna Boy also made his way through the festival circuit in full-force this year, starting with Coachella. There was quite a bit of buzz around the announcement at the top of this year, where he felt a way that he was billed in small font on the line-up. “Coachella I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill,” he said in a deleted Instagram Story. “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.” Music editors and tastemakers soon received a revised Coachella poster signed by Burna Boy, with just himself, in large and small fonts, as the billed artist. This was yet another clever way to maximize a moment to the artist’s advantage that would otherwise put a dent in their reputation.
Burna then dropped six singles accompanied by stunning music videos, half of which were helmed by director to watch Meji Alabi, leading up to the release of his fourth studio album, African Giant, this past July. If this project did two things, it first silenced the naysayers. Second, it showed he’s at the level where the respect he expects from mainstream players in the industry—and the bravado that comes with it—is warranted. The receipts are all there just in the music alone.Collaboration
In and around his latest body of work, Burna Boy has always been intentional about who he collaborates with. It’s a reflection of the diverse music genres he consumes as well as an indicator of range—including working with Fall Out Boy, L.A.-based electronic duo DJDS on their joint EP Steel & Copper, Future, YG, Jorja Smith and more.
He’s also the epitome of one who respects the greats who came before him. This can be seen with his eventual collaboration with Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo. Even before sampling her in “Anybody” (word to Sample Chief), Burna tapped Kidjo’s “Wombo Lombo” in a track with the same name in 2013. Joining Burna alongside Damian Marley on “Different,” the track closes with Kidjo—giving her the breathing room to envelop our ears with her piercing vocals that becomes a transitional interlude to “Gbona.” With African Giant, he shows us these greats also approve of his artistry, which is frankly the one co-sign that an artist vies for, as it reassures them that they’re doing it right.Authenticity
Burna Boy is fully aware of who he is and his purpose as an artist. We’ve yet to see him step outside of himself, especially through his music. What’s great about Outside and African Giant is that both projects are the ideal entry points for new fans who aren’t familiar with his take on afrobeats. However, Burna has kept that same versatile energy from the beginning. He also has maintained Fela’s message and music as his throughline, delivering similar sentiments to a whole new generation. Burna’s also about his business. Reflecting on the moments I’ve shared the same space as him, where he was being taped performing his singles from African Giant for different media platforms, he enters, politely greets everyone, does his brief set in one take and leaves to his next engagement. He truly comes alive when he’s on stage engaging with his fans—you can tell it’s his true happy place and his delivery show after show.
His fervent authenticity has led him to more opportunities for him to shine, from him being the only guest artist with their own track on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift, to landing an original on the soundtrack for Queen & Slim an impending blockbuster on black love.
The undeniable thread that ties these three factors together is consistency. Artists who give the people excellence—with a consistent message on every track, in every music video, and at every live show—will reap the fruits of a successful crossover. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the foundation an artist needs to execute such: a solid team who gets the vision and has the best interest of the artist in mind—a team that can convince and show their artist that following the formula will be worthwhile. From his manager mother (who’s also a living icon) Bose Ogulu, to his sister and stylist Ronami Ogulu, to his core collaborators at Atlantic Records, Burna’s team is rock solid. The rollouts for his projects released over the past three years have been deliberate and executed so well that pop artists from the continent have already taken notes and applied what has worked to their strategy.
Burna Boy has achieved much leading up to this Grammy nod from the Recording Academy. Whether he takes home a gold gramophone or not in 2020, he’ll walk away a winner all the same.
Antoinette Isama is a dynamic writer, editor and media multihyphenate with expertise in the intersection of African youth culture, arts, and the diaspora.
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.
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.