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“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”
Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.
Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”
“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.” - Saul Williams
The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas - their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.
Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about). But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”
“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams
Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”
The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.
Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.
What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).
Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.
Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.
The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic - and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”
(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.
“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)
But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.
“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams
First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.
Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.
By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.
Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."
The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.
With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."
As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.
Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.
This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E," in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.
Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."
In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.
Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.
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.