“Love yourself … embrace who you are … be true to yourself” are examples of clichés that are often heard. However, what do those statements really mean? And how can someone begin to love themselves if they struggle to receive love from others?
Some of those answers were unpacked this week as North Carolina A&T hosted Love the Skin You’re In, an event that was part of the chancellor’s speaker series. It was groundbreaking because of the diversity of the panelists, who included Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and Laverne Cox.
Cox is a transgender actress known for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. Ross is the first male model to represent albinism, and Riley is a plus-size actress best known for her role as Mercedes Jones on the TV series Glee.
“I am very grateful that this event happened,” said Amara Johnson, a senior multimedia journalism student who is an active member of Prism, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-plus organization on A&T’s campus.
“I believe many things were intentional when planning. One example would be students who are in Prism, the LGBTQ+ organization, had reserved seating in the front rows. This was such a big deal for us because normally we are an afterthought. Also, this particular event was historic because it was the first time a transperson has been invited to speak on campus.”
The panelists tackled topics centered on self-concept, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love.
They opened up talking about their differences and how they knew they were different.
“I never truly knew I was different until I stepped out into the world,” said Ross as he discussed the challenges he faced having albinism while going to school with kids who were also African American, but had darker skin that his.
“I only knew I was different when I went to the beach and got sunburn,” he joked.
Dealing with their differences
Besides their differences, they discussed dealing with the shame of them.
“Shame is an intense feeling of unbelief. Shame is instead of thinking, ‘this is a mistake,’ you say to yourself, ‘I am a mistake,’ ” Cox explained.
They talked about not only acceptance of oneself but acceptance of one’s accomplishments.
Ross said that for a long time he was being humble to a fault. Whenever he would accomplish something, he would say to himself, “What is next?”
“Sometimes I don’t feel what I’ve done has been worth it because of my past,” Ross said. But now he’s in a place where he recites to himself, “remember where you were, not what you want.”
Not only can self-criticism be a heavy burden, but the criticism from others can be, too.
“It doesn’t go away once you get in the magazines,” Cox said. “It actually gets worse because you have more eyes on you. If you do not know who you are. If you do not have a sense of your inherent worthiness because you are a child of God, what other people say about you will destroy you.”
The importance of self-confidence and how it is crucial to surviving in life was another topic.
“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning,” Riley said. “I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way?”
Several people in the audience raised their hands, symbolizing they, too, could relate to her struggles with self-esteem.
“But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in,” Riley continued. “It is inside of us to survive.”
“Listening to them talk about their journeys to self-acceptance reminded me that I need to be patient with myself as I embark on my own journey,” Johnson said. “To paraphrase a quote that Amber Riley said that stuck with me: ‘Self-love is a journey, not a destination.’ ”
Moderator Dr. Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne asked the three to discuss some tangible things they had gained on their journey of self-acceptance.
“I think that one of the most tangible things that you could ever receive is the truth. The more I got older, the more I was able to live in my truth. So, living in your truth is one of the most tangible things you can ever have,” Johnson-Verwayne said.
The LGBTQ+ community on campus
The event shed light on the support and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community at N.C. A&T.
“I feel like this event contributed to the growth of the LGBTQ+ community on campus by opening these conversations up and opening these dialogues up and letting people’s humanity be seen,” said Morgan Turner, a junior psychology student and member of Prism.
“Being able to have examples of people you see on social media who are famous and who are in all these different identities telling me their story goes a longer way than what Prism and other students can do at times that are just out of our hands,” Turner said.
Asia Hill is the president of Prism, whose purpose is to support members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus.
“The goal of Prism is not only to make LGBT+ students feel safe,” Hill said. “However, it is also to make LGBT students visible on campus and to make other people see how advocating for the LGBT community can look and how it can help not only yourself in your own community but also communities you don’t even know about and people you haven’t even reached.
“The stories that they told and the energy that they had helps with the advocacy piece,” Hill continued. “There are people who aren’t LGBT that still came just for the sake that it’s a chancellor’s event. They got a story that they wouldn’t hear before, and think that helps people understand the LGBT community and understand just the people around him.”
Conveying the importance of therapy was Johnson-Verwayne, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, saying, “Everyone should have a therapist.”
They stressed academics and relationships as well.
“Also be sure to watch the energy around you and watch the energy that you’re putting out to other people,” even in college. “The problem is people are so hung up on where people are right now than where they’re going,” said Ross.
Some students said the evening was valuable and they were grateful they were understood, walking away with valuable life tips.
“I think the program was absolutely amazing,” said Aaron Johnson, a senior liberal studies student. “Being a gay black male myself, it took me a while to find self-acceptance and what the panelists pretty much talked about, I could relate to. It felt like everything just resonated with me deep down in my spirit.”
“There was something Laverne said about when she’s feeling anxious she finds the space in her body where she feels the most anxiety and subsequently finds the space in her body where she feels the least anxious and it helps her get through the anxiety step by step,” Hill said. “That to me was groundbreaking because I never heard of anything like that and the physicality of it was really life-changing. It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.”
Saturday Night Live is The House That Lorne Michaels Built. Perhaps it’s finally due for a teardown.
This time, it’s the departure of Leslie Jones that’s prompting a re-evaluation of the show, along with the hiring of the show’s first Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, and the hiring — and then firing — of comedian Shane Gillis. Gillis was let go just four days after the show announced that he would be joining its 45th season because of backlash over his history of using anti-gay jokes and racist slurs.
Gillis’ dismissal might indicate that the cultural shifts taking place in the country have at last announced themselves at SNL, the country’s premier sketch comedy show and one of the few non-sports shows that Americans still watch together live.
What does any of this have to do with Jones?
After five years and three Emmy nominations, Jones, 52, is leaving SNL to pursue other projects, including hosting the reboot of Supermarket Sweep, a role in the Coming to America sequel, a role opposite Kristen Bell in the dark comedy Queenpins and a Netflix comedy special.
Like the six black women who preceded her on SNL, Jones was saddled with an unfair challenge. These women could either find ways to be deferential to the structure that Michaels had built, even when it did not suit their talents, or they could leave. Even though Maya Rudolph found a way to flourish at Saturday Night Live, she also talked about how the show was inhospitable to black women. In Jones’ case, succeeding meant finding ways to break out, even as she was repeatedly portrayed as uncultured, ham-handed, undesirable and lacking self-awareness.
The decision to keep going to those wells was deliberate but not necessary. One of Jones’ best sketches is a send-up of House Hunters that she did with Liev Schrieber. And yet it’s a rare example of a sketch in which her perceived personal deficiencies as a black woman are not the butt of the joke.
“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018. “There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special … there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.”
Black women were sprinkled through the show’s history like truffle shavings — in 44 years on the air, only seven (Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Cleghorne, Rudolph, Sasheer Zamata, Jones and Ego Nwodim) have ever been part of the cast. Yang will be the first Asian cast member in the show’s history. That rarity points to deeper problems within SNL, ones that were highlighted in a short-lived show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
In 2006, the same year 30 Rock debuted, NBC aired another show that looked at the palace intrigue inside a popular weekly sketch comedy program. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, created by Aaron Sorkin, lasted just 22 episodes. But it did bring out an issue endemic at SNL: The writing for black cast members frequently relied on stereotypes processed through the white gaze.
In one interaction in episode six, the show’s new black castmate, Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) pleads with head writer and executive producer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) to hire black writers. Stiles confronts Albie at an episode wrap party. He wants Albie to accompany him to a comedy club to check out a set from a comic who is black.
“I’d like to see more black writers on your staff, or a black writer on your staff,” Stiles tells him.
Moments beforehand, Albie had been entertaining a trio of young women, trying to get them to understand what a big deal he is, when one of them spots Stiles and says, “OMG, it’s Simon Stiles! Do you know him?”
Frustrated that the women don’t recognize his authority over the show, Albie half shouts, half growls his answer: “He works for me!”
But minutes later, when Albie answers Stiles about hiring a black writer, his actions are frustratingly familiar. Suddenly, the man upset that three strangers don’t understand the importance of his job is powerless to change a situation created by his predecessors. He completely absolves himself of responsibility for the fact that the show’s writing staff is all white, even though he makes the hiring decisions. Then he gets defensive.
“It’s not my staff,” Albie says. “I didn’t hire these guys. Ricky and Ron did. As the contracts run out, we’ll see what’s what. Is this a diversity issue? … Am I not writing well enough for you? You think I need to bring in help from the bullpen once in a while to write for a black guy?”
“I think there’s comedy to be found in experiences that are far removed from your own,” Stiles answers. “And I think there’s a dramatic and musical language in which you’re not fluent.”
“It’s insulting to me that there are no black writers in the room,” Stiles says.
“It’s insulting to me that you think I need help!” Albie shoots back.
Though it appears in a fictional drama, the confrontation between Stiles and Albie captures a dynamic that prevented SNL from consistently developing a smarter approach to using its minority castmates.
But Jones began as a writer. Shouldn’t she have had more power over the material she performed than most do? Maybe. And yet she still found herself pigeonholed as the butt of jokes that reinforced her perceived lack of desirability and painted her as a sexual predator.
Even last season, when Jones was passionately advocating for women to have a right to make their own reproductive choices, the bit ends with a dig about her lack of romantic graces. She can’t fit her 6-foot, 233-pound frame into a box, and she knows, she quips, because she tried to mail herself to a dude.
Historically, race and racism and earnest action around inclusion have been treated as an inconvenience or an afterthought at Saturday Night Live, not something that’s hindering the quality of the show or driving away potential talent.
Black women could not necessarily expect to find much solidarity from their white counterparts at SNL, or the sketch and improv comedy community that functions as a feeder system for the show. Amy Poehler, together with former SNL head writer Tina Fey, created some of the most memorable sketches in the show’s history. But in 2015, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Poehler was dismissive when her interlocutor asked whether criticism directed toward SNL for its lack of black women was warranted.
“Ugh,” Poehler answered. “I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.”
The same year, minority members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv comedy troupe Poehler co-founded with Matt Besser, spoke openly of demeaning sketches that were hostile to people of color. What has persisted at Saturday Night Live and throughout the entertainment world at large is a deep resistance to self-examination and change. One need look no further than the most recent Primetime Emmys telecast in which multiple groups of all-white writers collected their trophies as if the competition on which those trophies are based is at all equitable or remotely reflective of the world at large.
In 2013, Erik Voss wrote a piece for New York magazine explaining why SNL’s diversity problems exist, and it all comes back to Michaels, who seems to view diversity as a distraction or a sideshow from comedy. Wrote Voss:
For him, SNL isn’t about diversity. It’s about comedy, pure and simple. He doesn’t care if his show accurately reflects the various racial groups in America, so long as it still gets laughs. And for the most part, Michaels has gotten away with this approach. All these years later, while its colorful competitors are long gone, eternally Wonder-Bread SNL is still bringing in big ratings, earning critical praise, churning out box office stars, writers, and directors that go on to dominate Hollywood, producing sketches that are among the most shared and talked about videos online, and remaining at the heart of American pop culture.
If diversity and comedy are seen as being embroiled in a zero-sum competition, not interdependent pieces of a whole package, that explains how minorities who challenge comedy that insults them are viewed as humor-killing agents of “cancel culture.” It also explains how Michaels made the decision to tap Fred Armisen, who is not black, to play President Barack Obama. Michaels thought Armisen was the best person for the role. Mind you, Jordan Peele auditioned for the part and Michaels still picked Armisen, while Peele went on to create the definitive impression of Obama in his own Comedy Central show with Keegan-Michael Key.
As long as the show is rewarded for its narrow definitions of what great sketch comedy can be, there’s no reason to expect it to do anything differently. The best we can do is hope — hope Jones kills it in future endeavors where she has more control over her own image, hope the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognizes the refreshing genius of A Black Lady Sketch Show, hope the powers that be can see that what they deride as “cancel culture” is not a crusade of elimination but expansion.
Because when we make room for the Leslie Joneses of the world to flourish, rather than attempting to make them fit into frameworks that weren’t built for them, TV gets more honest and more interesting. And if we’re in agreement that Jones is a national treasure, well then why wouldn’t we want that?
Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.
What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?
Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.
Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.
“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”
Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.
“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”
Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”
At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.
Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.
“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”
He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.
“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.
“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”
Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.
Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”
“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”
Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.
“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”
When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”
He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”
“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”
What position would Jesus play, coach?
“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.
“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”
The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.
And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.
Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.
The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”
Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”
Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.
One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.
Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”
Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.
“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”
Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.
In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.
This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.
As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.
If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.
This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.
When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.
“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.
“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”
— bomani (@bomani_jones) August 7, 2019
Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.
Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).
Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.
Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.
Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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’ …
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.
HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.
The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.
The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.
Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.
While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.
Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?
Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.
Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.
— Gabrielle Dennis (@GabrielleDennis) December 2, 2013
Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.
A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.
Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.
It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.
Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.
That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.
LAS VEGAS — When news was first announced that Kenan Thompson would be hosting the 2019 NHL Awards, it seemed a little too good to be true. The man whom one recent publication surprisingly called “underrated” would be coming to the stage to entertain the hockey world, something he’d been doing since he first appeared in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy, a series that for many people is their lone avenue into or reference point to the sport, quite frankly.
There was a part of me that was hoping this event could serve as a yet another milestone moment that breaks down the psychological barrier that many still have between blackness and pucks. And while this night wasn’t exactly that from a comedy standpoint, there were a few moments that helped the cause overall.
The monologue was effective, but didn’t stray too far into deep water.
“Welcome to the 2019 NHL Awards. I will be your host this evening and, for the last time, no, I am not one of the Subbans.
“My name is Keenan Thompson. You might recognize me from SNL, All That, Kenan and Kel. … But, let’s be real! You don’t. This is a hockey room. So you only know me as the kid from The Mighty Ducks 2 and 3!”
“You know, I can’t really decide if my favorite player is Ryan Reaves or … I don’t know. Man, I don’t know, maybe even Malcolm Subban, you know, from the Golden Knights. I just … Hey, I don’t know. I feel a strong connection to the two of them. I don’t really know what it is. I can’t put my, can’t put my finger on it.”
See, that’s funny because Ryan Reaves and Malcolm Subban are both black and both play in Las Vegas. I’m still sort of wondering where that joke would have gone had those roster spots not been what they were, but who cares. Point is, that was about the extent of Thompson’s routine about being black in the hockey world, which in truth, is all that was needed because the realities are certainly still harsh enough to not make light of the subject.
Throughout the night, the league highlighted the nominees for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, given to “an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” It’s named after the NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.
By sprinkling in vignettes of the nominees’ stories, the theme stayed top of mind during the broadcast that this is an enduring battle. So between Thompson appearing as Steve Harvey, LaVar Ball, Charles Barkley and some weird mad scientist character with white hair, you couldn’t lose track of the fact that diversity existed beyond Thompson’s well-known Saturday Night Live go-tos.
There was Anthony Benavides, who runs the Clark Park Coalition, which launched a youth hockey program in Detroit for black and Latino kids, after rebuilding an outdoor rink with the help of his community. Another nominee was Tammi Lynch, the mother of a hockey player, whose teammate, who is black, was racially taunted during a recent game. She didn’t just fight back, she formed an entire movement called Players Against Hate, which aims to educate everyone about racism on the ice.
The inclusionary theme wasn’t just about black folks. Robin Lehner talked at length about his battles with mental health. Laila Anderson, the St. Louis Blues superfan who is battling a life-threatening immune disease, was featured in the cold open with Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski. And Carey Price stole the show when he surprised a young fan on stage, whom he’d met before, following the death of his mother.
Not to be forgotten was the unveiling of the new NHL 20 cover, which features the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Matthews’ mother is Mexican, and one of his earliest coaches helped found Mexico’s national ice hockey program. There are rumors that the EA Sports game might even have an SAP option, which is tremendous.
“It’s the way they’re growing the game and, you know, different markets, different countries, and just encouraging everybody all over the world to play hockey,” Matthews said. “I hope it’s not my voice that’s going over it, because my Spanish isn’t very good. But I think that’s awesome.”
But the big winner of the night was Rico Phillips, who took home the Willie O’Ree Award. A firefighter in Flint, Michigan, he started playing hockey in high school. Then his journey took him to the world of refereeing. Now, with the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program, Phillips is doing everything he can to give back to the community that built him and he works in today.
“Yes, so when we first started the program, there was certainly a need. There is lack of cultural diversity in hockey all across North America, but specifically in Flint. And as I would look out as a referee, I would see that lack of diversity,” Phillips said Wednesday night, sitting in Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with his award by his side. “And so when we put it together, I had to get with local community leaders, especially the business community, to be able to provide the funds and the equipment for the kids, because we knew we had to have this absolutely free.”
It isn’t just about getting kids out to play for all the obvious reasons that’s helpful. It’s about an exchange between communities that oftentimes goes beyond the ice, which is essentially the whole point.
“One of the best things about our program is the volunteers themselves. We host eight different high school hockey teams who come in on different weeks and adopt the program. So there are built-in on-ice instructors,” Phillips explained. “What’s great about that is these kids, the high school kids come from the suburbs and rural areas, and then they come into the inner city to work with our kids. And this complete cultural breakdown that happens to where they all become one and it’s magic to see. I didn’t know it was gonna be that way, but that is one of the magic parts to our program, is that it’s really community-connected.”
Afterward, Phillips flashed pics with various hockey players, including P.K. Subban — who, by the way, covered NHL 19, becoming the video game’s second consecutive spokesperson of color — and other greats. Earlier in the day, the NHL also approved the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to a Latino owner, California billionaire Alex Meruelo. One is topical, one is deep-rooted.
So while the NHL and hockey as a whole are doing their best to put people with brown faces in outward-facing positions, some who are in them know just how tricky that can be in a real-life application. Hockey is only as inaccessible as anyone makes it seem, although the structural problems do create obstacles.
“There isn’t that gap that people think,” Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goalie who is currently an analyst for the NHL Network, said after the show. “Hockey players and NHL players don’t live on Pluto. I feel like the game is a people game. It’s a family game, it’s a community game. … It’s nice to have them recognized. Community leaders need to be recognized.”
Thursday in Las Vegas, many were. But the scars of the realities of racism don’t go away just because a few trophies are handed out. Those rewards just serve as a reminder of the many things that not only the game has to overcome, but everyone else does too.
“In the ’80s, it was a running joke. I was the only black guy on that team. In the whole, everywhere. All right? And I had to absorb that and laugh it off and joke with them,” Phillips recalled. “Otherwise I would have been sad and mad and all those other things. My mother taught me, ‘Well, that is their regular, it’s not yours. Change their minds about who you are. And that’s all that matters.’
“And as a result of that, over time, the cultural things have changed. Now, when I became a young official, the N-bomb got cast right at me. My first season, I was 17 years old. So to think I’d be sitting here today after that dude called me that. Gold, man. Gold.”