Hypocrite(?!): Black Authenticity in the Age of Social Media
I remember the first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry.”
I hated it.
And the next few listens after that didn’t change my opinion; actually, I might’ve told either my ex or my roommate at the time — or both — that it was the worst Kendrick song I’d ever heard. I thought I meant it.
Selected lyrics, for your convenience:
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the [Black] Panthers
Or tell Georgia State ‘Marcus Garvey got all the answers’
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my b-day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?
That’s how the song ends. Left to consider my personal role in the myth of *black-on-black crime*, I scoffed at Kendrick’s ignorance. I mean, I went to Howard and got to see stuff and actually studied the politics, so I get it, is an actual sentence I think I formed and said out-loud. Even better, I continued! Kendrick’s only used to Compton probably and what he saw growing up, so I can’t blame him for not really understanding.
Forgive 2015 me, please. I didn’t even know I was that pretentious! You’ve got to understand: 2015 was still a very charmed time — two years post-Trayvon and one year post-Michael Brown — but with one year left of President Obama's administration and its never-ending well of hope and optimism. I wholeheartedly believed I’d be entering a world where performative wokeness would be actually in-style, my blackness not so threatening and my desire to discuss that blackness not so taboo. Even by mentioning black-on-black violence, I felt Kendrick was hustling backwards, validating a conservative trope rarely factually correct and even less frequently relevant to the solution of repairing black communities. I couldn’t stomach that from the guy gunning to be hip-hop’s voice of my generation! You can’t just make recklessly wrong assertions on widely-heard rap records and get away with it!
But eventually, it clicked.
Look at those lyrics again. The first six lines read like Chappelle’s “I Know Black People” sketch, no? Imagine Dave using his serious voice. (If you believe in supporting the urban community, which channel should you watch most?) Both Dave and Kendrick are critiquing the notion of performative blackness, the ways in which we consciously and subconsciously determine who’s sufficiently black; its more-opinionated, bougie cousin performative wokeness are the ways we judge one’s desire to be authentically black in public. But if we’re doing all this critiquing, constantly waiting for others to screw up so we can dock points from their Q-score, when are we making any time for self-reflection? Kendrick’s not really asking how could he cry about Trayvon’s death; of course he has the capacity to grieve the unwarranted death of another unarmed young black person, regardless of whether he knew the kid or not. The act of crying itself isn’t necessarily enough to trigger that self-conversation.
No, this isn’t Kendrick interrogating his how. He’s interrogating his why. I’d love to chat more about the black-on-black violence myth at a macro level, but dropping to the surface, Kendrick’s two-bar final analysis is spot-on. It doesn’t make sense for a black guy who just killed another black guy last night for a similarly mindless reason to see Trayvon and rail against the injustices that lead to senseless deaths. It doesn’t make sense for a population generally loathe against this president to overwhelmingly purchase a book with his face squarely in the middle. It doesn’t make sense to munch on white fudge animal crackers as I type this even though I’m “working on better eating habits.”
So, how’d you spend your Sunday?
I got to sleep in a little — ah, the perks of recovering from feeling like a zombie! I showered, trekked through a small blizzard to the Original Pancake House for my Sunday brunch, slid under the covers once I made it back home, and watched Season 1 of Californication (which I’d highly recommend, 10 years too late).
For the (vast) majority of you, I’d assume your nights concluded with the Super Bowl, which I did deliberately protest this year, both for the litany of social reasons available from which to choose and simply because I didn’t really want to watch. I distinctly remember watching the Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl a couple years back, and I never want to see something that hyper-produced ever again. Even the game felt like a television commercial! I barely watched last year’s Super Bowl if at all, and having determined basketball the safer sport with the greater aesthetic appeal and (relative) moral high ground, giving up the NFL altogether has proven way less difficult for me than I once anticipated. If the NBA started scheduling Sunday matinees from the beginning of its season, I’d probably never intentionally see another NFL game again.
What did intrigue me, however, was this year’s Super Bowl halftime show performer and his spectacularly floundering return to music. Full disclosure: I have yet to muster the vitriol for Justin Timberlake that woke society — and more specifically, Black Twitter — has seemingly conjured in absolutely no time, which I actually find absolutely fascinating, because I’m open to being wrong.
Hear me out: Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods is being punished for the sins of his earlier career, which I’d be more on-board with if we as consumers were more consistent and transparent with what we’d like from our celebrities. Amidst the pile-on of “Timberlake’s overrated” takes I saw over the weekend, one particularly enterprising Buzzfeed contributor wrote an “article” essentially detailing in timeline form the many times Justin invoked Britney Spears and their breakup to benefit his own career. And it’s true: immediately post-breakup, Justin Timberlake, in a 2002 interview with Barbara Walters for his Justified album, absolutely trashes that young lady. It’s disgusting to watch now, which — to me — means it should’ve been disgusting to watch back then too, right? He called her a “horrible woman” live on television! Britney Spears’s fanbase wasn’t big enough in 2002 to mobilize against his album’s campaign?
(Per Wikipedia: Justified debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, selling 439,000 copies in its opening week. The following week, Justified sold 188,770 copies and fell two positions to number four. In its third week, the album sold 110,000 copies and remained within the top ten on the chart. The album appeared on the Billboard 200 chart for seventy-two weeks, and eventually went on to sell 3.5 million copies in the US. It has been certified four times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of four million copies. As of 2018, the album has accumuladed 4.6 million album-equivalent units in the US, combining sales and equivalent streams. Justified debuted and peaked at number two on the U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The album charted on the Billboard 200 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums 2003 year-end charts, reaching number eleven and twenty-six, respectively.)
TL;DR: I guess they didn’t mobilize against his album campaign.
In all seriousness though, it seems disingenuous to suddenly suggest Justin Timberlake is now this sociopathic culture vulture for behaviors we’ve been rewarding for nearly two decades now, everyone. *NSYNC showed up on 106 & Park in 2001, and I think their video for “Gone” shot to #1 on their countdown afterwards. Justified was the number-two RHYTHM & BLUES album in the entire United States of America its opening week. Then, not only did he survive Nipplegate, he made FutureSex/LoveSounds, which I know way too many of you actually purchased and still own. “Suit & Tie” cruise ship jokes aside, we gladly welcomed that first iteration of The 20/20 Experience. And now I’m seeing some of the very same folk who I remember tweeting their joy about new Timberlake music in 2013 resort to the most base and juvenile criticisms of the guy just so their voice doesn’t get lost in the echo chamber. I guess.
There are fair and valid criticisms to make of Justin Timberlake in 2018: performing at the Super Bowl, for maybe the longest list of reasons ever, was the whitest, most-privileged, and most tone-deaf move he could’ve made; in a world where celebrities are increasingly emboldened to take political stances, Timberlake has yet to take one that also didn’t manage to be slightly offensive (we were still calling people 'ethnic' in 2006?); working with Woody Allen also seems like another situation a more enlightened person would steer away from; and — most important, to me — the music’s aggressively mediocre. A B- album with Neptunes and Timberland production doesn’t even compute, really. Which is why I’m finding the music a much more compelling storyline than white guy mishandles privilege and is resistant to acknowledging blind spots on race and class. I mean, really? That’s the history of America! And you're ... surprised?
Reveling in the failings of a guy who really didn’t do anything this time but be white really isn’t sitting well with me, especially when the sins inherit to his whiteness were heretofore otherwise ignored. This feels like a major over-correction, a moment of performative blackness and wokeness. I can prove I stopped liking Justin Timberlake way before you did! I struggled with the decision to listen to his album, but after some self-reflection, I determined I’d much rather let the opinions of his black producers and musical partners dictate my feelings on the music, not the perspective of Twitter folks who both have never met the guy and are increasingly out for blood.
And so I listened, I put the six or seven songs I did like into my music library, and I survived the experience without determining whether Justin Timberlake is a hip, legitimately curious white guy with absurd musical range or a white-supremacist loving culture vulture determined to profit off the labor of black bodies. If I had to guess, I’d assume he’s somewhere in-between, all things considered. The lyrics aren’t so enlightening into his views on our country right now, but forgive me for appreciating Chad and Pharrell making music together again — and for hoping they wouldn’t work with a misogynistic culture stealer who secretly condones sexual assault and child rape. Sheesh.
The drafts folder in my Twitter app has to be at near-capacity. There’s a little bit of everything in there — half-cooked thoughts I’m not even sure I believe quite yet; the majority of the wrestling tweets I come up with; controversial ideas I’m not willing to defend to internet strangers; the most random of my already-random non-sequiturs. Here, I’ll give you five:
- manu just missed a euro-step-lefty finger roll. those used to be automatic 😭
- schuette’s about to ride this investigation straight to becoming governor. i’d hate him for it if it weren’t so brilliant.
- the decline of the gospel music industry can be directly correlated to the increase of studio albums and decrease of live albums in front of actual congregations lol, i promise
- so we’re just retconning the fact tisha hit martin with a sexual harassment lawsuit in real-life? just curious.
- my two (semi-) competing thoughts on this entire investigation are a) he didn’t even anticipate winning and b) there’s no chance he spends a day in jail. so why not just sit still and shut up until spoken to?
I’m all over the place. Whatever.
I guess I’ll ask you all: were those tweets worth drafting? The Manu one, probably not so much. But the next one, about Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette? That’s kind-of morbid to consider right, this idea that he’d parlay the Larry Nassar scandal into publicity for his impending campaign for governor? Except he’s definitely running for governor, and he’d be a fool to not include this investigation — should all go smoothly — as part of the media kit. Is it moral? Probably not. Is it wrong to do? Probably not. Would I do it?
I don’t know.
I don’t! We all like to police each other’s morals because it’s infinitely easier than interrogating our own. I would hope to make the correct moral decision given the circumstances, but I would especially hope — and plan accordingly — to never be in those types of predicaments. A couple weekends ago, I found myself on the periphery of a squabble between a new friend and some jerk clearly trying to antagonize her, and I’m still concerned about how passive I felt in that moment, how I deferred on an opportunity to leverage my privilege for good all because I didn’t want to involve myself in their business. Things ended well enough that night, but I’ve revisited that scene repeatedly in my thoughts, playing out the myriad of alternate scenarios and whether my inactivity would’ve been acceptable in any of them.
I just don’t want to be a coward. My dad always tried instilling this sense of being a “good citizen,” a concept I laughably related to my typically poor citizenship grades in school. But I guess I sort-of get it now, and that understanding directly informs my distrust of social media, platforms much better designed to highlight divisions than similarities. We speak of social media most frequently as a monumental social achievement, Facebook and Twitter unifying and reuniting folks like we’d never before seen. But, plot twist: unity isn’t much fun. People like chaos, believe it or not. It’s what we’ve been preconditioned to enjoy. Folks will join the monoculture to a point, but they’d like to preserve their autonomy and individuality — and ego — in the process. Practicing good citizenship requires subverting that ego more often than not, which is wholly incompatible with an industry that celebrates narcissism and unique personalities.
We’re each playing a version of ourselves on the internet; the majority of us have officially been around long enough to have earned some sort of cyber-reputation, one we’ve either carefully crafted for ourselves or one we unwittingly wear — or sometimes both. Oftentimes, the truth about our character lies somewhere in the middle, between the perception we’d like to see accepted as truth and the actual reality of our lives. I totally understand it. I’ve been crafting my personal brand around the aesthetic that I’d like WSH to exude — clean, refined, much cooler and over everything than you’d believe — and while it can be fun to play that character on Twitter and Instagram, it’s a weird feeling to consider how detached our two personalities can be. Not entirely disparate, mind you; I’d never accuse anyone of faking for likes and retweets. But we’ve all now become curators of our personal running diaries, for better or worse. Can’t blame a curator for exercising creative control, can you? That's precisely why my Twitter drafts folder is pouring over at the moment. Creative control.
I never have the answers, I know. That’s why I pose these questions to you all. I guess I’m coming to find out that most things are unanswerable without proper context, and that proper context is rarely — if ever — available. We spend so much time projecting, assuming, believing word-of-mouth accounts from folks who aren’t even reliable themselves. In trying to prove everyone is equally evil, all the time, the true evil guys are provided the latitude to move the goalposts and continue their villainy while redeemable folks who’ve made honest mistakes are forevermore tied to their (relatively smaller) indiscretions. Unquestionably, we should hold each other accountable for the decisions we make, good or bad. But we can’t preach responsibility and not practice it ourselves.
I guess I’m just asking for a bit more self-awareness. I’m not asking you to agree 100 percent of the time with me — just for the courtesy of a dialogue that doesn’t include aggressive namecalling. We all have our moments; the key is our willingness to ask ourselves why we’re willing to reinforce certain ideas antithetical to our existence and not others.
I can admit to being a hypocrite: I’m going to use every ounce of social media to promote this essay, and I’m going to listen to my favorite songs from Man of the Woods and eat more animal crackers as I work.
Are you willing to do the same?