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The year 2020 has only barely begun, and it’s already a lot. Yet in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial and recently minted British royals politely declining to stick around for Brexit, one of the most important battles of this new decade is underway over an issue that impacts Black and Latinx Americans in disproportionately large numbers: bail reform.
As of January 1, new rules that passed as part of the budget via the New York legislature in April of last year officially went into effect statewide, with near-immediate results in the courts. The key change within the approved measure removed altogether the option to set cash bail for dozens of misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Inspired by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young man who died by suicide not long after some three years jailed on the notorious Rikers Island awaiting trial over charges that were ultimately dismissed, the move marked a major step towards fixing one of the most broken aspects of the American criminal justice system.
In recent years, a number of local New York politicians have included cash bail abolition or reform in their platforms, including attorney Tiffany Cabán, who lost her 2019 bid for Queens District Attorney in a primary recount by a mere 55 votes. The issue has entered the national race for president as well, with nearly all of the current Democratic primary contenders publically adopting the stance against the practice.
Yet days before the reforms were active in New York, law enforcement spokespeople, Republican politicos, and right-leaning media outlets like the New York Post took to doomsaying the loss of cash bail, utilizing familiar rhetoric about unsafe streets, catch-and-release chaos, and the like to build an atmosphere of fear around the loss of cash bail as a way to keep bad guys behind bars. Exploiting a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city around the holidays, the campaign hardly let up in the first few days of the new year, putting Democratic politicians on the defensive and setting the stage for rollbacks in the now just-returning New York legislature.
For those blissfully unaware of the inherent unfairness of cash bail, it’s a practice with devastating consequences for those unable to pay. In principle, it should act as an incentive for an accused party to return for necessary court appearances or trial, after which the amount is to be reimbursed regardless of plea or verdict. However, those unable to pay in the first instance spend untold amounts of time in jails like Rikers, subject to emotional and physical threats and traumas on the inside, as well as external consequences ranging from lost wages and unemployment to long-term economic penalization. To make matters worse, innocent people held in pretrial detention have clear incentives to take plea deals from prosecutors, as opposed to spending months or years in jail waiting for their proverbial day in court.
As such, despite being innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, the poor suffer for the same crimes in ways that those with means to pay bail do not. Given the myriad issues of systemic and individual bias in law enforcement, people of color of course feel the brunt of this institutionalized discrimination. And like so many living and working in neighborhoods and communities of color, hip-hop artists from unsigned talents to major label superstars are negatively impacted as well.
“Culture becomes a weapon,” explains Scott Hechinger, a Senior Attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who works as a public defender in the borough and a vocal advocate for decarceral criminal justice system reform online. “Prosecutors not infrequently attempt to use creative expressions — hip-hop songs, videos and other content — against the young people we represent to try to paint them as dangerous, violent criminals & gang members.” With the new reforms now applying to so many misdemeanors and felonies once subject to cash bail, the system blocks such specious attempts to paint rappers and musicians as criminals by association or allusion can’t be used as justifications for detaining these accused persons.
“Police scour personal Facebook and YouTube pages looking for content to fit their narrative,” Hechinger says of how our love for hip-hop has been used against us. “They claim photos of young men on social media are ‘self-admissions’ of gang affiliation, which are then used by prosecutors to justify excessive bail, long pre-trial detention, and lengthy prison sentences.”
Whether highlighting instances of rappers who caught cases or tackling civilian stories of outrage in the system, plenty of rap blogs and broader popular music publications use their platforms to address topics of criminal justice. More than six years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal gave prominence to #BlackLivesMatter, the national movement’s legacy includes a shift in culture writing to cover these issues to some extent. Some have taken a “woke” stance by reporting on the likes of Kodak Black and XXXtentacion in ways not necessarily flattering to those artists, while others opt towards pure fan service. The latter editorial option warrants some criticism, particularly when the charges pertain to domestic violence. That said, outlets with non-white editorial or ownership have good reason to be wary of law enforcement narratives against rappers, all too aware of the criminal justice system’s failings and institutionalized biases against Black and brown people who find themselves impacted by it in disproportionately high numbers.
With anti-reform disinformation gaining traction on social media as well as in the local political rhetoric, hose in entertainment and culture media who care about hip-hop and the communities of color from which so many of its talents emerge ought to be actively covering and defending bail reform in New York. Fighting disinformation with information at this juncture feels crucial, especially as reform comes under fire from those who seek a return to the unfair and cruel status quo we only just moved away from mere weeks ago. These efforts can come via op-ed pieces like the one you’re currently reading, via the contextualization of news coverages, or through social media information sharing--and that’s just a few examples.
“Journalists of all kinds, but particularly those who reach an audience with diverse interests and experiences, those who are younger, new voters, and natural allies in the fight for justice who may just not be yet activated, can do enormous public good by covering critical social justice issues,” says Hechinger, who adds that sensationalist media outlets have long served the opposite cause to detrimental effect. “They are engaged in a coordinated campaign to stoke hatred and fear to roll back landmark bail reform before it even really begins.”
As we know, with the rise of hip-hop, rap, and R&B as the 21st century’s pop format of choice, media outlets and writers without a personal stake in or material connection to communities of colors are covering the genre grouping with regularity. In doing so, white-owned, white-run, and white-perceived publications generate clicks and revenue streams for writing about this music, which subjects them to accusations of culture vulturing or appropriation, albeit with few real world consequences.
It is to this end, then, that the editors and writers working at or with such outlets must be active and vocal allies in the fight to preserve decarceral reforms and further the cause of ending mass criminalization in New York or otherwise. These music and culture publications enrich themselves from this music, and have an obligation to participate in a demonstrable way if they wish to be perceived as part of this ecosystem as allies as opposed to parasites. It is not enough to simply report these stories as news items, as we saw with Meek Mill’s compounding legal woes in Philadelphia. Educating themselves about the details of bail reform and the wider contemporary abolitionist movement must occur, and those who primarily experience the culture from behind a keyboard need to step out of their comfort zones to engage in real life with those in communities of color for whom this reform helps most.
“Mass criminalization—the range of laws and practices that intersect inside and outside of court to devastate and marginalize predominantly Black and Latino people and communities—is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hechinger. So while cash bail reform is a major step, there are lots of other issues with the legal system where people of color are still disproportionately punished. And music journalists need to speak out.
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.