A revival of ‘for colored girls’ feels fit for 2019 Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem gets a new presentation in New York

About three-quarters of the way through for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, the women of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem recreate the oh-so-common laments of men who just can’t get it together:

lady in blue: that n—– will be back tomorrow, sayin’ ‘i’m sorry’

lady in yellow: get this, last week my ol man came in sayin, ‘i don’t know how she got yr number baby, i’m sorry’

lady in brown: no this one is it, ‘o baby, ya know i waz high, i’m sorry’

lady in purple: ‘i’m only human, and inadequacy is what makes us human, &

if we was perfect we wdnt have nothin to strive for, so you might as well go on and forgive me pretty baby, cause i’m sorry’

lady in green: ‘shut up b—-, i told you i waz sorry’

When actor Okwui Okpokwasili, who plays Lady in Green in the revival of for colored girls at New York’s Public Theater, spat out those last words from an abusive, ungrateful partner, they landed with a slap. She had to direct them at one of her sisters in color, and not some awful boyfriend, but she smiled and made eye contact with her scene partner. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.

The show went on, and it was a moment, not even necessarily for the audience, that was easily overlooked. And yet it embodied the spirit of sisterhood that dances through this staging of for colored girls, directed by Leah C. Gardiner and choreographed by the Tony-nominated Camille A. Brown, whose work appeared last season in Choir Boy.

Okwui Okpokwasili (foreground) plays Lady in Green in the revival of for colored girls.

Jean Marcus

Shortly after Shange died at age 70 in October 2018, the Public Theater announced it would revive her most well-known work. for colored girls made its off-Broadway debut there in 1976, before moving uptown to Broadway’s Booth Theatre. With its questions and worries about sexuality, virginity, intimate partner abuse, police violence, cultural appropriation, abortion, trifling romantic partners, and sexual assault, for colored girls remains as relevant now as it was when Shange first began workshopping it in Berkeley, California, in 1974.

for colored girls came into being amid the experimental Black Arts Movement. Other luminaries of the movement, who seemed as though they would live forever, have also taken their leave in recent years — Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka in 2014, and Toni Morrison earlier this year.

The Black Arts Movement both documented and propelled social change, and something similar feels like it’s taking place in New York theater now. It is full of urgent, strange, nervy work that is interrogating whiteness and challenging who holds power in the theater and in society at large. Artists such as Michael R. Jackson, Donja R. Love, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Aleshea Harris, Patricia Ione Lloyd, and Jordan E. Cooper have distilled the essence of the movement, leaving its less effective elements consigned to the 1970s, and built off what works.

Brown and Gardiner have brought forth a revival brimming with reverence and fearlessness. Their work isn’t intimidated by Shange’s position within the black canon. Instead, they embrace it, and her, as a sister and contemporary. The direction feels both new and simultaneously lived-in. Because social dance and natural movement play such a big role in Brown’s work, there’s an accessible grace and effortless modernity about this show.

The Public’s revival is staged in the round, in a space that surrounds the audience with hazy, homey mirrors. Lucite installations that resemble wind chimes, like something you might have pulled out of your grandmother’s attic, hang from the ceiling. The performers lounge among the audience when they’re not speaking or dancing.

“Just as Women’s Studies had rooted me to an articulated female heritage & imperative, so dance as explicated by Raymond Sawyer & Ed Mock insisted that everything African, everything halfway colloquial, a grimace, a strut, an arched back over a yawn, waz mine,” Shange wrote in her introduction to the published choreopoem. “I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.”

In this new revival, men are present in the words, but not on the stage. The women recount their deeds, the fun they provide, the sorrow they inflict.

Jean Marcus

Screen adaptations of for colored girls have never quite captured the essence of the choreopoem — its downtown New York theater sensibility and its grungy simplicity, born of a hunger to make art even when one can barely afford the basics to stage it. Oz Scott directed a 1981 adaptation for the American Playhouse series that included Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard and expanded the world of the choreopoem to include men in the production. Tyler Perry’s 2010 feature film, which starred Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg, added a similarly unwelcome high-production-value sheen. Even though the show moved to Broadway, Shange maintained that her tastes were simpler. “for colored girls . . . is either too big for my off-off Broadway tastes, or too little for my exaggerated sense of freedom, held over from seven years of improvised poetry readings,” she wrote.

In this new revival, men are present in the words, but not on the stage. The women recount their deeds, the fun they provide, the sorrow they inflict. In between, in the margins of the words and performances, is the love black women hold for each other. This for colored girls offers a metatextual take on how black female queerness often exists in the cracks between the floorboards of our worlds. It doesn’t necessarily show up on the page, but it’s in the dreamy, flirty, sassy dances recreated by the women as they recall vignettes from their lives. In those moments, Shange isn’t just a part of the Black Arts Movement, but incorporated into the literary sisterhood of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.

In the mirrors of the for colored girls set (designed by Myung Hee Cho), light bounces around the room, but magic does, too. The room buzzes with the love black women offer each other, both romantic and not. If a black woman enters searching for God in herself, she need only look up and around.

 

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

‘Black Panther’s’ superpower allows it to leap over other superhero movies in a single bound More than a cool-looking bit of escapism, it’s a meditation on colonialism

This review contains spoilers.

The most anticipated superhero movie of the year, and quite possibly ever, is a movie about foreign policy.

In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a thoughtful, personal, detailed exploration of the implications of isolationism and colonialism. It’s gorgeous, emotional and full of inventive, eye-popping fight scenes. And it’s also a really good movie, and not just by the curved standards we’ve developed for standard superhero tentpoles.

Honestly, the worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president. (The producers of The Final Year, the documentary about former President Barack Obama’s real-life Justice League of Wonks and Nerds, must be kicking themselves.)

Try to imagine all the regal African pageantry of Black Panther’s Los Angeles premiere, copied and pasted onto the East Wing of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Had Black Panther been released while Obama was in office and enjoyed a screening at the White House, it would have made for some powerful symbolism, with Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan graduate student, greeting Chadwick Boseman, the son of Howard University who plays T’Challa, the king of the movie’s mythical African nation of Wakanda. It also would have offered a lasting rebuke to the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of a different and deadlier fantasy, The Birth of a Nation. (PBS recently aired Birth of a Movement, a documentary that illustrates the way film, particularly D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda film, became a powerful force in influencing policy.)

It’s quite moving, then, to consider the message embedded within Black Panther, spread through every inch of Hannah Beachler’s meticulously luscious production design, every stitch of Ruth E. Carter’s costuming creations, every word of dialogue conceived by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

The worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president.

Boseman may be the titular star of Black Panther, but the emotional core of the movie lies with the character of Erik Killmonger, who is T’Challa’s cousin and a lost son of Wakanda. Coogler reserved the most complex role for his friend and leading man of his two most recent films, Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger grew up in the slums of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, with his American mother. His father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), was brother to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani).

N’Jobu and T’Chaka had a fundamental disagreement over Wakanda’s role in the world. The country is a magical one, built on a foundation of the mythical substance vibranium, and hidden in plain sight in West Africa. Vibranium is a substance of endless capability, a wonder of physics that absorbs the energy directed toward it, then uses it as fuel. When ingested, it possesses healing qualities, rendering surgery obsolete. When sewn into clothes, it turns into the sort of lightweight supersuit that Tony Stark could only dream of. Used as fertilizer, it nurtures a herb whose fruit allows those who ingest it to commune with the dead. To outsiders, Wakanda looks like an underdeveloped Third World nation, full of brush and goats. The people of Wakanda have pledged to guard its most closely held secret: that with technology powered by vibranium, it’s actually the most advanced society in the world, a place that makes Elon Musk’s house look like little more than a fancy pigsty.

There’s a compelling argument for keeping Wakanda, which accepts no foreign aid and does no importing or exporting, isolated from the rest of the world. Its people have witnessed how colonialism has ravaged the continent, stealing people and dividing families, poaching precious metals and natural resources, creating arbitrary borders and deadly conflicts and leaving corrupt governments in its wake.

In fact, in the rare instances when they encounter white people, Wakandans simply refer to them as “colonizers.”

But N’Jobu, dispatched to see the rest of the globe, encounters a world full of disenfranchised people who look like him, ignorant of the bounty of Wakanda and struggling against the effects of imperialism and systemic racism. He wants to use vibranium to help them. But T’Chaka says no, worried that once the world learns of Wakanda’s secret, it will suffer the fate of the rest of colonized Africa. At the least, Wakanda will be forced to defend itself against ill-intentioned and well-armed outsiders. When N’Jobu decides to subvert his brother’s orders, T’Chaka is forced to kill him, and little Erik discovers his father’s corpse.

About 20 years later, after the U.S. military and intelligence community has turned him into an efficient, merciless, death machine, Killmonger sets out to complete his father’s vision.

It’s too simplistic, and frankly unfair, to label Killmonger simply as a villain. He’s an angry, half-orphaned son of Wakanda whose mind has been colonized in ways he’s incapable of realizing. Without the support of his homeland and his people, lacking the spiritual grounding that protects vibranium and Wakanda, Killmonger grows into a Che Guevara-like figure. He commits what French philosopher Frantz Fanon called “horizontal violence” against his own people.

Therein lies the brilliance of Black Panther. Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence. With this film, Coogler illustrates the yawning expanse between self-indulgent brooding and true profundity.

Coogler puts on a filmmaking clinic, expertly navigating the tropes of superhero films that have made so many of them a chore instead of a joy. Coogler snatched one of Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) most irritating directorial habits, shooting action and fight scenes in the dark, and made it not just watchable but artful. That’s what happens when you have cinematographer Rachel Morrison at your service — you find natural ways to capture black people in action while retaining detail and color. Morrison recently became the first woman to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar for her work on Mudbound.

Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence.

There is little that feels derivative, aside from the battle scenes with Wakanda’s flying saucers, which feel like they could easily appear in Guardians of the Ragnarok Star Wars, which isn’t wholly surprising given that they’re all Disney properties (full disclosure: Disney owns The Undefeated). The fight scenes in Black Panther feel original, and organic to the film. That’s a challenge considering how often Marvel employs the same second unit (the people who shoot and choreograph fight scenes) across its movies, which leads to a superhero battle homogeneity.

Everything about Wakanda is rooted in real African nations and peoples, such as the Masai, the Zulu, the Mursi and others, not the imagined “generic tribal African” who shows up in pop culture so often. For instance, the setting of the challenge battle, which determines who will ascend to the throne, is a nod to the natural majesty of Victoria Falls. Audiences have every right to be angry at cultural appropriation when it’s poorly done. Coogler and Black Panther prove that having such expectations is not unreasonable or misplaced.

There’s a quote from playwright and director George C. Wolfe that graces the walls of the Blacksonian in Washington. “God created black people,” said Wolfe, “and black people created style.”

That’s the essence of Wakanda.

Black Panther doesn’t feel like any other Marvel movie because this is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s coming out in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s on track to perform just as well as if not better than any highly anticipated summer blockbuster. It’s funny without falling into the sort of smart-aleck remark-smart-aleck remark-EXPLOSION rhythms that have come to typify Marvel movies to the point that somehow Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 don’t feel all that different. That’s not just a Marvel tic, that’s a Hollywood tic: Find something that works and then run it into the ground. Then reboot it, rebrand it and spin it off as long as it makes gobs and gobs of cash.

There is a requisite scene that connects the film to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a postscript that comes after the credits roll. It’s the only bit that feels like it was mandated by the company. Best of all, Black Panther doesn’t feel as though Coogler had to sacrifice the brilliance and introspection that characterized his earlier movies such as Creed and Fruitvale Station for scale and product licensing. Instead, it’s a compelling character study and full of mirth. That’s especially thanks to T’Challa’s upstart younger sister, Shuri, played by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, Black Panther’s breakout actress. She’s witty, charming and completely unfazed by her brother’s enormous power and responsibility. She’s also Wakanda’s whip-smart gadget mistress, the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Also notable are the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female corps charged with guarding the king. Remember the feeling that swelled from your gut to your heart and out your eyeballs while watching Diana Prince walk through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman? Witnessing the Dora Milaje, especially any scene that includes Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is like that, times 10.

At some point, I suspect that chatter surrounding Black Panther will turn to the 2019 Oscars. Black Panther’s masterful execution makes it an undeniably obvious choice. Not only does it have the revelatory newness of Avatar, but it actually has a story to back it up too.

But beyond the concerns of awards or box-office receipts, Black Panther is something special: thoroughly African and yet completely American, and evidence of just how much black people can and have yet to do. Perhaps it’s even capable, just as The Birth of a Nation once was, of helping to steer an entire national conversation.

Daily Dose: 10/18/17 Gucci Mane ties the knot

Hey, now! Got another win on Around The Horn on Tuesday, which was fun. Of course, Wednesday night is the season opener for the Washington Wizards, which should be exciting, so I’ll be there.

Even when it comes to showing concern, President Donald Trump has problems. After falsely claiming that various presidents had not contacted the parents and families of soldiers who were killed in action, when he finally decided to do it himself, he made things worse. According to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), Trump told the widow of the late Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for.” He leaves behind two children and an unborn child. If you’d like to donate to their college funds, you can do so here. Trump has denied it happened.

Gucci Mane is now a married man. In a lavish $1.7M ceremony dubbed The Mane Event on BET, Radric Davis wed Keyshia Ka’oir in front of a celebrity crowd all dressed in white. Because this is 2017, the entire process will be part of a 10-part special for the network, The Wopsters, which will be must-see TV. We need not extol the virtues of Gucci and his turnaround — except, actually, we do. His new album, Mr. Davis, is way better than the two previous post-jail projects he’s dropped. This dude is such an inspiration.

Chris Long puts his money where his mouth is. Earlier in the year, he pledged to give game checks to start scholarships for college in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. You might recall that a white nationalist rally in that city sparked huge outrage when a driver plowed into a crowd of people in a scarily violent and deadly scene. Now, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman is donating his next 10 game checks to launch the Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign, designed to support educational equality efforts. Great cause.

NFL 1, President Trump, 0. After a meeting Tuesday with players, the NFL decided that it will not be penalizing players who don’t kneel for the national anthem, a far cry from all the bluster that was spoken in previous weeks. Remember when Trump got on stage and started screaming that if guys didn’t stand for the anthem they should be fired on the spot? And then Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed that up with a toothless statement that no player of his would kneel without getting benched?

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know you’re an important person in society when Lego decides to re-create your likeness for kids across the globe to play with. Lego’s now done so for female scientists with the new “Women of NASA” set, which features Nancy G. Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

Snack Time: When it comes to cultural appropriation, some people are so ruthless with it. Take for example this restaurant in California that serves Popeyes chicken, which they PROUDLY have delivered twice a day. Wow.

Dessert: Let Thundercat take you away this afternoon. We love him.

Jeremy Lin’s dreads aren’t cultural appropriation, they’re America He’s not mocking black folks, just making the point that black culture is embraced around the world

Jeremy Lin’s velvet-gloved clapback at Kenyon Martin for his Instagram rant calling Lin out for his new dreadlocks brings to light an interesting paradox for black culture in America. Is black culture separate and distinct from American culture? Or is it an integral part of the patchwork quilt that makes up the country’s culture, and thus open and available to all?

Martin’s remarks suggest that unless you are black, you aren’t allowed to actively partake of and participate in black culture. Those who do run the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation.

What exactly is cultural appropriation?

Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.

I don’t buy into the notion of cultural appropriation as defined above. Cultural mockery — the exploitation of a culture for the benefit of members of another culture, or to the detriment of the members of the culture itself — is something else and should be called out and avoided at all cost.

Black culture, though rooted in Africa, was born and raised on the plantations, sharecropping fields, urban ghettos and segregated communities of America. It developed and emanated from the spaces and places where black folks found themselves. From the pitch-dark days of slavery to the shadow of emancipation and the dawn of desegregation, these communities gave birth to what we now know and celebrate as black culture. Other than Native American, Alaskan and Hawaiian culture, it is the only culture that was developed on these shores and as such should be open to all to celebrate as American.

One thing standing in the way of this is the color line. Race can be divisive and often creates clear lines of demarcation in our country. Our history has proven that we can’t win when the battle lines are drawn according to race. However, we may have a chance with culture.

Whereas culture may come from one group of people of a common ethnic or racial group, it doesn’t have to be exclusive to that group. And when handled right, it can become a place from which we can all find common ground.

If we move some of the discussions that we have around race to one of culture, then we may be able to find a mutually beneficial way of solving some of the problems we face. That’s not to say that we should ignore race or make the false declaration that we are living in a post-racial society. However, where the issue of race can often be divisive, culture doesn’t have to be.

Martin made the mistake of conflating race and culture, which are not one and the same. I was reminded of this a day before his infamous Instagram post.

I was at a group dinner in San Francisco. I was seated next to a Chinese woman and her Jewish husband. About 15 minutes into the dinner, she looked at me and asked, “What are you?” I smiled and said, “What do you mean, what am I?” She said, “What is your ethnicity?”

I told her that I was black, and went on to tell her that my mother was Hawaiian and my father was African-American. I told her that while I was ethnically mixed, I was culturally black and was raised in a black neighborhood in the South. I don’t have any real cultural connection to the Hawaiian blood coursing through my veins other than my middle name, Kimo (Hawaiian for James).

She was stunned and revealed to me that while she is ethnically Chinese, she was born and raised in Hawaii and as a result considered herself to be, at least in part, culturally Hawaiian. From a cultural standpoint, she was infinitely more Hawaiian than me.

Just because she is not ethnically Hawaiian doesn’t mean that she can’t access or claim the culture that she was raised in. And just because I am — and know little about the culture and have never visited the island, by the way — doesn’t mean that I have some right to call her out for her adoption of “my” culture as a part of her own.

Later that evening, I told her and her husband that I have spent the last 20 years in the service of black culture as an executive for black arts and cultural institutions and as a small-business owner. I told them that I traveled extensively and have been to every continent except Antarctica. The one thing I find almost everywhere I visit is a significant amount of the American culture these people abroad appreciate and identify as American comes directly from black culture. The big difference is that they don’t see a distinction. They simply see it as American culture.

The problem is many white people in our country don’t see the totality of American culture that is exported and enjoyed by the rest of the world as an extension of themselves as Americans. Conversely, some blacks in America don’t see black culture as a true part of American culture.

When I introduced this conundrum to my dinner mates the gentleman had an epiphany, and in an instant he began to see how he and I truly shared a cultural connection as Americans that could serve as the foundation from which we could begin to appreciate and maybe even celebrate our differences, which we did throughout the rest of the evening in conversation.

In my travels, I have learned, initially much to my chagrin, that as much as I am culturally black, I am also very much culturally American. I eventually had to come to grips with the truth that I have just as much if not more in common culturally with the average white guy shopping at the local Walmart than I do with some of the people who look like me when I travel abroad.

Jeremy Lin attempted to find common ground with K-Mart by pointing out the former NBA All-Star’s collection of Chinese tattoos. Although there was definitely some implied shade in his comments, Lin, unlike LeBron James’ persistent “son-ning” of Kyrie Irving, flipped the script by “pop-ping” Martin and giving him his props as a basketball old head: “Thanks for everything you did for the Nets and hoops … had your poster up on my wall growing up.”

If you agree with Martin’s logic, it would be OK for Becky With the Good Hair to go onto Instagram and tell Beyoncé to step away from the blond weave.

All of this, of course, just continues to force us to choose sides and move us further away from one another in the widening polarization of America.

It’s time for us to look in the mirror and realize that as Americans we may not all look alike, but we do have cultural connections that can unite us and, yes, a significant part of that culture is black.

The rest of the world sees it. It’s time for us in America to recognize and accept it as well.