2011 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
The musical group Odd Future speak onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Kravitz

Growing Up Queer And Black With Odd Future's Music

I.

“This is for the ni**as in the suburbs and the white kids with ni**a friends who say the n-word” – Tyler, The Creator

The first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face I was, for lack of a better phrase, "spared” the indignity of it also being in English. Language will leave you grateful for the strangest things I suppose. The year was 2012 and I was, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, at a frat party at my alma mater wearing some raggedy KD35s, a still kind-of-new pair of Levi’s with a belt patterned with some classic mixtapes that was enveloped by a voluminous white tee with the name and logo of every Negro League Baseball team which I’ve owned since eighth grade but never grew into. Outside the house with the suffocating bass, a cloudless Pennsylvania fall was maturing. Dew dusted every suburban road in Swarthmore and October was settling into the trees. In the dark, the trees are everywhere. The streetlights are far between in suburbia, so you have to be within inches to see the changes flourishing around you, the kaleidoscopic qualities of death; even now, it is almost beautiful.

The man who called me ni**er was not a stranger. Until relatively recent to that point, we had lived within feet of each other as freshman year roommates. I’m telling you this less to blunt his violence than to explain why he was standing close enough to me for me to hear him. Everything about the sound system in a party like that seems to have a bone-deep hatred for the foundations of the building. It’s not hyperbole when I say the first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face everything was already vibrating, everything was already coming apart. The man, freestyle rapping very poorly to a song that was seemingly all bass to my deeply faded best friend, rhymed my name with “Mulignon” which in Italian translates directly to “Eggplant” and colloquially, on that night, me. The transfiguration I prefer is to tell you “Everything in me became a fist” but the reality is everything in me became a lens. I flitted a quick look to my friend who seemed to have lost the line in the bass or was biting his tongue. I studied the party, I counted the white people in the basement (too many), I counted the Black (we were standing next to each other, it went quickly); I uncurled my fist. I could see every possibility for the fight I knew I could win: the jaw I knew I could break and in that same breath, looking into the dew populating his face, my own expulsion if I laid hands on him. I was and am ashamed, he had called me a ni**er and all I could think of was the consequences I would face.

I turned, said I was getting another drink but really I hustled past the partygoers; the slick and swelter of their arms pushing the names of my shirt closer to me until finally I was up the stairs and pulling open the door. I was out in the air too furious even to shiver where the wind hit me. Pushing into the dark, t-shirt clinging to me heavy with the excess of other people’s want, I stared out first towards the train tracks then a light I trained myself to imagine as Philly, I was alone staring up and into the unpunctuated night, Black and without witness. I’m not telling you this story for sympathy, but to tell you how a boy governed by consequence and shame could fall wholeheartedly and dangerously in love with its absence. I’m telling you how I first fell in love with Odd Future.

In 2012 I was the hapless manager of an equally hapless rap collective that was paid in pizza and exposure, in that order. Disowned by policy, we rolled 5, 10, 12, 15 deep across a campus that could have never imagined us. Our songs were wack but that didn’t really matter, for once everywhere I looked, we were legion. I imagined this was what it must be like to be famous and unconcerned with consequence. This was what it must be like to be in love, I was sure of it.

The real magic of Odd Future is that for some Black boys, we imagine heaven to be a place where we and we alone are the greatest danger to ourselves. Odd Future, in their best moments, loved in a syntax of sheer, reckless desire. They seemed most of the time governed by impulse that delighted in existing right at the edge of familiar logic. Many would call their work “raw” because we love lazy approximations for tenderness in America, we love the taste of the wrong word said confidently. This is less about rawness than it is a story of the perils of falling in love with being unabashedly ugly, and that’s what they were and what I wanted most.

Nobody in Odd Future was good looking. In fact, many of their lyrics seemed to be in open conflict with the idea of being attractive. They were ugly, and we were ugly, and this was how we were beautiful to one another. In the worst fall, I believed I would ever endure, my hair was often dirty, my beard scraggly and uneven in a way I can now identify as my body’s signal for a depressive episode. My clothes were also pretty wack and I was shopping size-wise for the person I was and desperately wanted to return to being, a me whose muscles were shredded but at least his sadness was quieter. But Tyler, the Creator was wearing short-sleeved shirts with hand-drawn donuts on them. Earl Sweatshirt, nearly my exact age, constantly referenced his globular forehead, rapped seamlessly of his bulbous lips as the contrast of his face as he swilled cough syrup and set fire to sheriffs’ whips. At 19, I wanted to be so ugly it made me hyperbole; unassailable, loved by my ni**as and only them.

Beauty, as we had been taught it, was for people with something to lose and there was something, is something, still in me that wants nothing so much as to not give a f**k. To weaponize not giving a f**k, to weaponize all my ugly as an act of trust that I am not alone in that ugliness. We moved like bastardizations of another man’s light, eager patrons of each other’s flaws, content to call this love. And it was love, in the Odd Future way—15 boys who knew beauty not as a look, but a looking past. We grew fluent in each other, like boys do; we grew too fluent in looking past.

II.

“I’m high and I’m Bi…wait I mean I’m straight” – Frank Ocean

I didn’t know, and I did, that I wanted to call boys beautiful in a whole other reckless way in 2012. But just as the trees of Swarthmore shrank from imagining me, so too could I not imagine who could love me that way; if I was indeed, that way. Being a teenager is mostly going to class and trying to decide what sorts of violence you are prepared to tolerate, and I was only really good at the latter. The first time I ever heard Tyler, the Creator rap I was, true to form, skipping class because I was “sick.” This wasn’t untrue, but rather than the vomit I was naming in a series of well-manicured emails that could only semi-plausibly come from somebody who had just finished vomiting, it was a sadness ricocheting from synapse to synapse—a drumbeat without a melody. There are few more pitiful lonelinesses than percussion in isolation. What I remember about listening to “Yonkers” for the first time has very little to do with the roach and everything to do with the way the Blacks and whites seemed to pulse in lock step with my temples. That, and the way Tyler said “fa**ot.”

Tyler, the Creator says “fa**ot” with the tenor of someone casting a curse they don’t want to believe is already spoiling somewhere in their marrow. I was a boy. I am a boy. I have heard the word because I am alive among the afraid. Tyler’s enunciation, though, was always that of a man who was rapping with a cleaver already lodged in his windpipe and he said each slur as if it were another quarter inch that the weapon could come out and we were invited to take the blade’s place. I am an American, I am always learning to justify. The distance between what someone says and what you want to believe they mean isn’t especially hard to traverse if you’re a freshman in college. If you’re just a witness to the knife it doesn’t take much to think he doesn’t mean you specifically.

It goes like this often in boyhood, unfortunately—proximity and tenderness are too often mistaken for each other. I became infatuated with Frank Ocean on the song “Super Rich Kids” in the summer of 2012 at a job where I was paid to sit in a room with my headphones on removing staples from the insurance files of long dead people. I didn’t know at first that Frank Ocean was part of Odd Future, content simply to hear someone else sing of the emptiness of rich folk that had alternately grounded or terrorized me all my life. Frank seemed to know what I knew, against all odds, that the rich have no children, only sad assets.

Looking back, it begins to make sense that someone who we could know so intimately to be in a group but not of it could produce a song like that. It was only the introduction of Earl Sweatshirt’s verse that tipped me to the reality that the two could be friends. I loved Odd Future and I loved Frank Ocean and had not known that, at least theoretically, to love one was also to love the other. Reading more about Ocean’s sexuality, I would stare at the videos for “She” and “Oldie” and wonder what was he doing around so many people who claimed to love him—and maybe even did—but spoke as if they might shank the boy he loved, too? The real question, true to form, was why was I doing the same?

The reality is that too much of boyhood is proving what you are not. When you’re Black somewhere that you’re not supposed to be more than theory, Blackness itself can become uncharacteristically rigid. Passing as straight was not as much of an active effort for me as it has been for some that I love. Really to sit and feign ignorance of my own bisexuality, to sit and listen to most of Odd Future call me out of my name was not especially difficult because I didn’t need to do much to pretend it wasn’t my name. That’s the thing about Odd Future level violence: some of it was so hyperbolic that I could neglect the crucial fact that when we imagine a violence, it brings it further into the realm of plausibility. To be around some folks in the collective as they spoke with fear about “that gay sh*t” or said “fa**ot” wasn’t as much a knife to the throat as it was a subscription service, a tax I could forget I was paying until it cost me.

After being almost implausibly different from the backdrop of the alma mater, I think we were all grateful for loyalty that demanded a different strain of assimilation from us. I am American, I am always learning how to justify. One of the many ways I wasn’t doing my job as the manager of the collective was that there wasn’t very much of an endgame outside the production of an album-length follow-up to a 2011 mixtape that was mediocre at best. I think, at some level, we were all invested in stasis. There’s an ecosystem to masculinity: what does not yet demand to be confronted can, at least theoretically, be endured. For some of the members from outside the college, as long as the album wasn’t done there was still always a place to sleep and people who found you useful and called it love. For some of us inside the college, we had a love from outside the suffocating loneliness in which we lived. We could ride with folks who looked like us and pretend we didn’t see or weren’t responsible for the violence they brought upon us and people we loved. We could pretend we were home. So long as the album was not done, nobody needed to know what I was, and I could be anyone and nobody would cast me out. Better, I thought, to be like Frank and have friends you must look past to love, who said fa**ot to pull you closer, to say “you are like us, so long as you are our ugly, we will not let you pass into the dark.”

III.

“And you don’t even have to look ‘cause we gleam obscene in the light” – Mike G
It seemed like Odd Future’s love for each other for many years was based on a simple, familiar logic: There is no greater love than to resolve never to be out-violenced in the name of those you love. This, to me, was the real magic of the video for “Oldie,” the final track on the last Odd Future mixtape. There’s an almost surreal collective innocence to the group as they wander around the set, shoving into each other with mischievous impatience to lip sync their assorted verses. It’s a simple concept on a simple beat, a collective that was already showing signs of inevitable fracture together and young, it could almost distract me from the very real effects of the violence weaving through the lyrics. Almost.

It is a privilege when a transgression can remain theoretical. It was a privilege to pretend that when Odd Future wrote extensively of the murder, rape, and dismemberment of women and queer people that they couldn’t be serious. Maybe they weren’t, but even if they weren’t, that’s not the point. The point is that Odd Future was a collective of young people for whom mental illness was a kind of superpower. When I was at the onset of my depression, depression seemed like a rarity in the Black communities I was from. To many, it still is. I felt like so many who look like me a sense of kinship with these boys who seemed, rather than choked and heavy from this unsustainable summer fevering through my brain, supercharged with their own ugly possibility. I was willing to do what I knew about beauty to stand in the Black and white of that a little longer. I looked past, and looked past, until I couldn’t. It was frighteningly easy to pretend that the deprivation of privilege that accompanied the surge of my depression precluded anyone suffering a similar season from having the power to commit the violence they described.

Surely, I justified, there was a way that this was persona, and persona alone. To a degree I was right, there is a level of persona to anything written, the space between imagination and utterance is often wide. But the imagination too is, for better or worse, a deeply personal thing. The violence of Odd Future lyrics then was not merely observed, but a sickness that, like depression, I was in conversation with and the longer I looked past, the longer I was only delaying acknowledgment the call was coming from deep inside the house. Which is to say my imagination itself was and is sick to be able to do the work of looking past, it is my ugliest thing and I am trying these days to reimagine what its health might look like.

What does one do when the inconceivable future becomes the consistent present? When the president’s casual speech is soaked and powered with a deeper violence than any the collective imagination of a bunch of Black teenagers, foraging for their place in violence, could conceive of? Jay-Z once said that he admired that Odd Future was the highly creative and vicious byproduct of years of systemic neglect who were now lashing out at what made them; how they are saying to America, “This is the son you made. Look at your son.” I used to like this idea a lot, tried to embody the best of it; a nation’s shame living a shameless life. For me, this seemed like it must be freedom because I was young and freedom seemed a monolithic prospect. You were free or you weren’t. Either you were the greatest threat to you or someone else was. This, of course, then the proof that in a nation dedicated to exploring every imaginable violence, where the Atlantic Slave Trade found root and queer people are murdered regularly, that there is no such thing as hyperbolic violence in America, there is merely Tuesday. I’m old enough now to know that I once wanted the worst of freedom, I tolerated violences upon myself and others in the name of being less lonely. I don’t think I’m special, just an American trying to be less so these days.

The lucky thing about being the same age as many of the members of Odd Future is that the story is, barring tragedy, not over. I’m cautiously optimistic in a world where Tyler, the Creator is openly gay but jokes about refusing to date Black men that one day we might simply be beautiful to each other. I don’t know what will happen, I can’t until I’m there. Many folks in the collective don’t talk anymore. I hope where all of us are from our various spectrums of sadness, isolation and complicity in masculinity and violence we’re moving towards the healing we needed from what we could not mend alone in each other. My depression is still, as it was at 19, an unsustainable summer and I am doing my work to divorce myself from the idea of it being a superpower. Rather, I’m listening to “Oldie” in the fall with an older man’s ear to take what I can from the best of imagination in better company, in more healing love. Beyond the window the trees are changing again. This autumn is welcome and may last all my life.

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How The WB Became A Hub For Black Entertainment In The '90s

Seeing a television show with a predominantly black cast may not cause much of an uproar in 2020, but 30 years ago, any advancement in our representation on-screen was cause for celebration. Sure, the previous two decades had given us a handful of classic sitcoms - The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World among them - geared toward a black audience, but 1990 marked the beginning of a period during which Tinseltown would open the flood-gates. Television behemoths like ABC (Family Matters, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper) and NBC (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) continued to tap into the urban market, which, by then, had become a jackpot for ratings, prompting other networks to follow suit by shifting their own programming. FOX, in particular, had turned itself into a serious competitor in short order. Launched in 1986, the network quickly emerged as a favorite among the 18 to 40 demographic, with groundbreaking programs like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, New York Undercover, Roc, and The Sinbad Show all making their debut during the early '90s.

This renaissance reached a fever pitch when The WB, which would become a central hub for black entertainment on the small screen, was launched on January 11, 1995. A joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Tribune Broadcasting, the formation of The WB Television Network was first announced in 1993, amid deregulation of media ownership rules. Taking a page out of FOX's book, The WB braintrust included a number of the network's former executives, most noticeably FOX's original President Jamie Kellner, and Programming Chief Garth Ancier, both of whom served at the helm during the networks launch. While the major networks often presented sterile images of black households and characters that were meant to be relatable to mainstream audiences, only FOX had tapped into the energy and aesthetic surrounding hip-hop, which had become a driving force in pop culture at that point. The WB would help fill that void in a big way with programming that not only reflected the vibe of the streets, but embraced the art of the music and the artists that made it.

This was evident from the network's launch, with the debut episode of The Wayans Bros. immediately setting the tone for what was to come. The first program to ever air on The WB, The Wayans Bros. starred brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the younger siblings of actors/comedians Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. Following stints on the final seasons of In Living Color, as well as roles in various films and television shows, respectively, Shawn and Marlon were tapped by The WB  to create and star in their own sitcom, giving the duo creative license to bring their vision to life. Set in Harlem, New York, The Wayans Bros. centered around the lives of Shawn and Marlon Williams, two brothers striving to realize their dreams while toiling away at their respective jobs. Boasting a cast that included John Witherspoon (John "Pops" Williams), Anna Maria Horsford (Deirdre "Dee" Baxter), Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) and other recurring characters, The Wayans Bros. gave The WB a credible sitcom to build its legs on, with Shawn and Marlon's cache among young black viewers drawing eyes to the network.

Avid fans of rap music and products of hip-hop culture, the Wayans' made sure to make their affinity for the five elements known from the jump, with their decision to use the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 single "Electric Relaxation" as the opening theme song and the graffiti-inspired logo for the show serving as two blatant indicators of this love affair. Sporting the trendiest brands of the time and infusing popular street slang into their dialogue, Shawn and Marlon presented an authentic, albeit humorous, glimpse of young black men that wore baggy jeans instead of slacks and were from the hood, but came from a two-parent home and were far from criminal-minded. Airing 13 episodes during its debut season, the breakout success of The Wayans Bros. resulted in the show being renewed for a second season, helping solidify the duo as viable comedic talents while establishing The WB as a force to be reckoned with.

On January 18, 1995, the week following the debut of The Wayans Bros. The WB aired the first episode of The Parent 'Hood, a family-friendly sitcom in the mold of The Cosby Show. Created by and starring actor/director/comedian/writer Robert Townsend, The Parent 'Hood centered around the growing pains of an upwardly mobile black family based in Harlem, New York. Townsend plays a college professor (Robert Peterson), a hands-on dad and strict disciplinarian, opposite Suzzanne Douglas (Geraldine "Jerri" Peterson), the family matriarch pursuing a law degree. Other cast members included Reagan Gomez-Preston (Zaria Peterson), Kenny Blank (Michael Peterson), Faizon Love (Wendell Wilcox), Curtis Williams (Nicholas Peterson), and Ashli Amari Adams (Cecilia "CeCe" Peterson). In addition to traditional sitcom tropes about family values and morals, The Parent 'Hood also tackled serious issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, and gang violence, giving the show additional depth and garnering rave reviews from critics.

The Wayans Bros., The Parent 'Hood, and Unhappily Ever After - another sitcom that debuted on The WB as part of its initial roll-out - all saw immediate success and were green-lit for second seasons. But Muscle, a short-lived parody sitcom that was also a part of The WB's original Wednesday night lineup, was cancelled due to low ratings. Looking to fill the time slot, The WB picked up Sister, Sister, a fictional sitcom about reunited twin sisters who were separated at birth, that was cancelled by ABC the previous year. Starring Tia (Tia Andrea Landry) and Tamera (Tamera Ann Campbell) Mowry, with a supporting cast comprised of Jackée Harry (Lisa Landry Sims), Tim Reid (Raymond Earl "Ray" Campbell), and Marques Houston (Roger Evans), the show aired on The WB for its final four seasons, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network and catapulting the Mowry family to stardom. Around this time, The WB unveiled the First Time Out, the network's answer to FOX's Living Single and infiltration of the Latino market, which had a brief shelf life before being cancelled mid-season, but remains noteworthy within the Latin community.

As The WB continued to expand for the 1996-1997 television season, the network introduced additional programming with the debuts of The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Created by Winifred Hervey and directed by Stan Lathan, The Steve Harvey Show cast comedian Steve Harvey in a starring role as Steve Hightower, a former music legend-turned-music teacher who plays an active part in his students’ lives while balancing his own love life. Playing alongside Cedric the Entertainer (Cedric Jackie Robinson), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Principal Regina Grier-Maddox), Terri J. Vaughn (Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson), the late Merlin Santana (Romeo Santana), William Lee Scott (Stanley "Bullethead" Kuznocki) and others, Steve Harvey's performance helped turn him into a household name on the national stage and remains one of the definitive roles of his career. Standout showings during his time as a cast member on In Living Color and in recurring appearances on the FOX sitcom Roc aside, Jamie Foxx was still building his reputation as a comedic actor when the first episode of The Jamie Foxx Show premiered on The WB on August 28, 1996. Starring as Jamie King, an aspiring musician from Texas who works in his aunt and uncle's hotel, The Kings Tower, while pursuing his career, Foxx's star rose rapidly during the show's five-season run, as did that of castmates Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca "Fancy" Monroe), Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P. Hartnabrig), Ellia English (Aunt Helen King), and Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), all of whom scored various roles in television and film in the subsequent years.

In addition to sitcoms, The WB also introduced animated content for children via the Kids' WB program block, which was introduced in September 1995. While largely comprised of popular Warner Bros. cartoons, Kids' WB also featured original series like Freakazoid!, Earthworm Jim, and Waynehead, the latter of which would prove to be highly influential. Created by comedian Damon Wayans, Waynehead, which is based on Wayans' own childhood, centers around Damien "Damey" Wayne, an inner-city kid with a club foot and a gang of friends. Featuring a voice cast including Orlando Brown (Damey Wayne), Tico Wells (Marvin), Jamil Walker Smith (Mo' Money), T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Roz), Shawn Wayans (Toof), and Marlon Wayans (Blue), Waynehead would only run for 13 episodes prior to being cancelled, but is remembered for its plot and giving kids from the projects and inner-city characters and scenarios that reflected their reality and has become a cult classic with the passage of time.

As the latter half of the '90s progressed, The WB became entrenched as one of the go-to hubs for black entertainment, with its slate of shows moving the needle and presenting viewers with stories and environments familiar to their own. Soon, after the initial run of shows, The WB would add additional shows with black leads to round out its programming block, picking up the NBC sitcom For Your Love, starring Holly Robinson Peete and James Lesure. However, when the network’s expansion into the teen market yielded huge returns in terms of ratings, hit shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell began to become the priority. This change, along with competing networks like UPN doubling down on The WB's formula and cornering the urban market, would help result in the eventual demise of The WB's flagship shows. The first show to bite the dust would be The Wayans Bros., which aired its final episode on May 20, 1999, after a five-season run. Just days later, on May 23, 1999, Sister, Sister would follow suit after four seasons on the network, with The Parent 'Hood being the next to go just months later. The Jamie Foxx Show would last five seasons before bowing out at the top of 2001, while The Steve Harvey Show held on the longest, surviving until the following year after six seasons, making it the longest running show with a black lead in the network's history.

Aside from the animated series Static Shock and the short-lived, Anthony Anderson-helmed sitcom All About the Andersons, The WB placed its focus squarely on teen dramas and sitcoms with Caucasian leads, with shows like Everwood, Felicity, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls all gaining traction. However, after the teen-boom of the late '90s and early aughts faded out, ratings for The WB declined, prompting CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment to shut down the network in 2006 and jointly launch The CW later that same year. Officially shutting down on September 17, 2006, The WB's most popular programs would be moved to The CW the next day, marking the end of an era. Outlasting fierce competitor UPN, which shut down two days prior and would also have select programs moved to The CW upon its launch, The WB remains near and dear to the hearts of multiple generations of black television viewers and produced some of the most beloved sitcoms of its time. As shows like The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show continue to live on via syndication, DVD, streaming services and YouTube clips a quarter century later, The WB's legacy as a major conduit in helping bring black entertainment to the forefront is iron-clad.

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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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Nickelodeon

How 'My Brother And Me' Resonated With A Generation Of Young Black Men

In terms of cultural impact and influence, the '90s ranks as one of the defining decades for black entertainment of the past century. This proves particularly true in the realm of television, with a number of landmark programs debuting that reflected the life and times of blacks in the urban community and beyond. While the '80s produced groundbreaking sitcoms like The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Matters, 227, Amen, and Frank's Place, all of which featured predominantly black casts, these shows were few and far in between.

However, the arrival of a new decade coincided with an influx of programs starring black leads, with shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Hangin with Mr. Cooper, Roc, Thea and South Central all making their debut. While these shows were hits across various age groups, they all starred and revolved around actors of age, in some form or fashion. One of the first programs to divert from this formula and place the focus squarely on adolescents was My Brother and Me, a sitcom that often gets overlooked when listing the pivotal shows of its era.

Making its debut on October 15, 1994, My Brother and Me was among the first live-action series to air on Nickelodeon and the first to feature a predominantly black cast. Created by Ilunga Adell and Calvin Brown Jr., and directed by Arlando Smith and Adam Weissman, the show centers around brothers Alfred "Alfie" Parker and Derek "Dee-Dee" Parker, the two youngest children of parents Jennifer (Karen E. Fraction) and Roger Parker (Jim R. Coleman) who experience the typical growing pains of pre-pubescent young men that are coming of age.

Additional core cast members include Alfie and Dee-Dee's older sister Melanie Parker (Aisling Sistrunk),, Alfie's best friend Milton "Goo" Berry (Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr.) who has an infatuation with Melanie, Melanie's best friend and Donnell's older sister Dionne Wilburn (Amanda Seales), Dee-Dee's best friend and Dionne’s younger brother Donnell Wilburn (Stefan J. Wernli),, Dee-Dee’s other best friend Harry White (Keith "Bubba" Naylor), and local comic book store owner Mrs. Pinckney (Kym Whitley).

Set in the suburbs of the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, My Brother and Me was the Nickelodeon's answer to Sister, Sister, a sitcom on ABC starring identical twins Tia and Tamera Mowry that had debuted earlier that year. With a beat writer for the local newspaper for a father and a school teacher for a mother, Alfie and Dee-Dee enjoyed a stable living environment in which they could thrive academically and socially while simply being kids. A middle-class family with access to all of the basic amenities, the Parkers' economic situation was in stark contrast to the usual scratching-and-surviving, rags-to-riches themes often associated with sitcoms geared towards people of color.

While removed from the harsh realities that often accompany life in the inner-city, the Parker boys were drawn in by the allure of street culture, with Alfie and Dee-Dee both being avid fans of hip hop music, fashion, and style. This love affair would be the driving force behind various episodes, most notably "Dee-Dee's Haircut," during which Dee-Dee allows Goo to butcher his hair after marveling at fellow student Kenny's "Cool Dr. Money"-inspired haircut. Going as far as handpicking designs out of a rap magazine Donell borrows from his sister Dionne, Dee-Dee goes to the extreme in an attempt to mirror Kenny and Cool Dr. Money, a testament to the influence hip hop holds over him. His affinity for the culture is also reflected in the "Donnell's Birthday Party" episode, during which the impressionable youngster mimicking dance moves from a rap video in hopes of tightening up his dance skills.

Alfie and Dee-Dee may have been the intended stars of the show, but to many viewers, the most memorable character from My Brother and Me was Goo, who stole scenes with his humorous wisecracks and mischievous hijinks, often at the expense of Dee-Dee and his friends. From showering Mrs. Parker with disarming compliments to masterminding various plots and schemes in an attempt to get himself and Alfie out of trouble, Goo proved to be the most entertaining member of the show, exuding swagger and confidence that are palpable to the viewer and as hip hop as it gets. On the other hand, Alfie, who is not as overtly demonstrative in his rap fandom as his younger brother or Goo, reps his allegiance to the culture more subtly, with his haircut, backward caps and boisterous mannerisms.

While race was never a prevalent topic on the show, if one was to look closer between the lines, My Brother and Me was unapologetically black and pridefully so. Take, for instance, the various nods to HBCU culture throughout the show, including Roger Parker's various North Carolina Central University sweatshirts and hats, Alfie's Morehouse fit, and insignias from various black fraternities. One other common thread of the show was its incorporation of sports, starting with the Parker household's fandom of Charlotte's local professional franchises on full display, as Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers memorabilia are all visible throughout the household. Cameos also included appearances from NBA stars Kendall Gill and Dennis Scott, the latter of whom teaches Alfie, the superior athlete of the Parker brothers, a lesson in selflessness and teamwork by cutting him from the school basketball team in "The Basketball Tryouts" episode.

Of all of the aspects of My Brother and Me that made the show a game-changer, the fact that it was one of the first times young black males saw themselves in characters on the TV is the most enduring. While plenty of shows and networks fixated on coming-of-age storylines centered around the privileged youth of white America, My Brother and Me provided the alternative, promoting the bond of brotherhood and family values with each episode aired. Preceding shows like Kenan & Kel and Cousin Skeeter, both of which implemented overt comedic or fictional elements, My Brother and Me was a realistic glimpse at the life of the average black boy in America without the overarching narratives of impoverishment, temptation, and despair. For many young black men born in the '80s, the show left an indelible impact on them and holds a place near to their heart a quarter-century later.

In spite of its critical acclaim and popularity, My Brother and Me only aired for one season, as it was canceled after airing its final episode on January 15, 1995. The network would air reruns into the early 2000s before returning briefly during The '90s Are All That block on TeenNick in December 2013, the last time the show would appear on television. In June 2014, Nickelodeon released My Brother & Me: The Complete Series as a two-disc DVD, giving a new generation of viewers and longtime fans of the show an opportunity to relive the magic that the show captured during its short, yet unforgettable run.

In the years following My Brother and Me's cancellation, many of the actors and actresses from the show would fail to find their footing in the entertainment industry, resulting in their acting careers fading into obscurity. Arthur Reggie III scored a few additional credits, appearing in the TV shows Sliders and C-Bear and Jamal, as well as the 1998 film Bulworth, but later transitioned into a rap career, performing under the name Show Bizness. My Brother and Me would mark Ralph Woolfolk's last appearance as an actor, as he decided to leave the industry behind and focus on his education, pursuing a degree in English at Morehouse College in Atlanta, while also attending law school. He is also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and currently serves as a police officer for the city of Atlanta. Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr. scored bit roles in the TV shows Sweet Justice and Sister, Sister in the subsequent years after the show, while Aisling Sistrunk, Stefan J. Wernli and Keith "Bubba" Naylor would never act professionally again.

However, a few members of the cast were able to sustain viable acting careers well beyond My Brother and Me's cancellation, most notably Amanda Seales, Karen E. Fraction and Jim Coleman. Seales would rebrand herself as Amanda Diva and become a successful media personality before transitioning back into acting, last appearing as Tiffany DuBois on HBO's "Insecure." In 2019, Seales debuted an HBO Comedy Special I Be Knowin', and was chosen as the emcee for NBC's comedy competition, Bring the Funny. Jim Coleman has kept himself busy with various roles over the past two decades, last appearing in "The Council," and continues to receive steady work. Karen Fraction would add a few additional credits to her resume after "My Brother and Me," but passed away on October 30, 2007, after a five year battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her two children, Lauren Elizabeth Jean and Lawrence Wm. Morris, and her husband Lawrence Hamilton. And last, but not least, Kym Whitley would enjoy a fruitful career on television and on the big screen, appearing in dozens of shows and films throughout her lengthy career, with her latest role being Mrs. Malinky in the Netflix animated comedy Pinky Malinky.

In the time since the debut of My Brother and Me, a lot has changed in terms of the presence and representation of black youth on television and beyond. A number of black actors and actresses have had the opportunity to shine in a big way, including Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) Zendaya (Shake It Up), Kyle Massey (Corey in the House), Keke Palmer (True Jackson, VP), Miles Brown (Black-Ish) and Alex R. Hibbert (The Chi) all among the more prominent child stars making major waves on TV over the past two decades. That said, 25 years later, the fact remains that My Brother and Me was ahead of the curve as one of the first instances of seeing ourselves in a positive and uplifting light on the small screen.

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