The stars _ in new colors _ come out for the first time, as Westbrook, Durant, Irving and Davis show off new uniforms
On Sunday, Fox will air the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards show at 8 p.m. EDT. But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ credibility as an arbiter of excellence will face justified skepticism because Beyoncé went 0-for-6 at the Creative Arts Emmys last week.
She was nominated for her work on Homecoming, a documentary that captured her performance as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And just as it was with 2016’s Lemonade, her previous visual album, America’s greatest living pop performer was royally snubbed.
For insight on how that snub might have been received, we can look to the self-titled album released at the end of 2013, which was accompanied not just with music videos but also documentary snippets that explained her mindset. One was about losing, and why she chose footage from her first professional loss — her childhood group, Girls Tyme, losing Star Search — to precede the grimiest, most boastful song on the album, “***Flawless.”
“I was only 9 years old, so at that time, you don’t actually realize that you could work superhard, and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” Beyoncé explained. “When I put Ed McMahon introducing us as the ‘hip-hop-rapping Girls Tyme,’ it clicked something in my mind. I feel like something about the aggression of ‘Bow Down’ and the attitude of ‘***Flawless,’ — the reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose and you’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. And it happens when it needs to happen.”
The pop star’s shutout at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys didn’t need to happen, but it did. And it’s completely reasonable that her team is having trouble embracing the outcome.
Beyoncé’s Netflix concert film Homecoming was nominated for six Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special; outstanding variety special (prerecorded); outstanding costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; outstanding music direction; outstanding production design for a variety special; and outstanding writing for a variety special.
Here’s what won:
- Directing — Springsteen on Broadway
- Variety special (prerecorded) — Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool
- Costumes — RuPaul’s Drag Race
- Music direction — Fosse/Verdon
- Production design — Rent
- Writing — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
The television academy’s decisions for music direction and variety special strike me as, at best, misinformed and, at worst, insulting. To understand why, let’s take a deeper look into what made Homecoming excellent, first with musical direction and then the show.
In crafting the musical arrangements for Homecoming, Beyoncé and music director Derek Dixie did something incredibly ambitious, something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of black music and a broad imagination and acuity for music theory.
What dominates Homecoming is a sustained nod to New Orleans. It extends past the tracks that originated on Lemonade, an exploration of Beyoncé’s Creole heritage. Dixie and Beyoncé didn’t just adapt her music for a marching band; they conducted a sonic archaeological dig and placed her within a continuum of black music. The orchestrations are reminiscent of the approach to pop music at Motown. Queen Bey’s hits benefit from the use of modern technology, which allows artists to take advantage of infinite possibilities. But they’re also written in a way that comes alive with a live band, an indication of top-notch songwriting and inspired orchestration.
See: the Homecoming arrangement of “Deja Vu,” which, after the first few measures of its bassline, drives into the song with horns that take a little from the funk of B.T. Express’ “Do It (T’il You’re Satisfied),” which is sampled on “Deja Vu,” and mixes it with strings more associated with Philadelphia soul.
Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show. The horn runs on “Say My Name,” for example, are exquisite — a blizzard of notes, played not by one person but a group. The greater the number of musicians attempting to play the same run in unison, the greater the likelihood that the sound will become muddied, which is why a classic choice for trumpet section battles at football games is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
On “Say My Name,” those runs are clean, tight and distinguishable. But they are part of a bigger sonic and visual machine. Besides the horn runs, there are the vocal harmonies from Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child mates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Then add the percussive beats, separate from the drum line, that come from the steppers.
Everything has to happen in unison and is being performed in large part by college students. To attempt to do the whole thing not once but twice, and then stitch both performances together in postproduction, is, in a word, crazy.
When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play and the drum rolls and haircuts and the bodies — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”
Then there are the screaming trumpets that are integral to the sound of a historically black college or university (HBCU) band. If you’re listening to the Homecoming album, you can hear them in full force at about 1:37 into the first track, “Welcome,” and again in the last 40 or so seconds. Hitting those notes requires a skilled level of musicianship. Being able to hit them again and again over the course of a two-hour set, as Homecoming calls for, is harder because horn players have to retain their chops, or their embouchure, so that their facial muscles aren’t giving out before the performance is over.
These challenges are different from those faced by the music department of Fosse/Verdon, led by Alex Lacamoire, which won the Emmy for the first episode of the seven-part miniseries. Fosse/Verdon is about the personal and professional lives of dancer and actor Gwen Verdon and her creative and romantic partner director and choreographer Bob Fosse.
Lacamoire was charged with an assignment that was almost the reverse of what Dixie and Beyoncé were doing. He had to take highly recognizable songs across several different musicals, written by different composers, and aurally unify them, creating a soundtrack that feels like it’s a collection of songs from one musical called Fosse/Verdon.
Even though “Big Spender” is from Sweet Charity, and written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and “Mein Herr” is a number from Cabaret, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Lacamoire’s arrangements make them sound like they belong in the same television show. In Lacamoire’s case, the artists unifying the collection are a dancer and a director, not a leading vocalist. The Music of Fosse/Verdon is from a variety of artists, from The Fandango Girls to Alysha Umphress to Bianca Marroquín. Creating and shaping that thematic continuity is not an easy feat.
Still, the recording sessions for Fosse/Verdon didn’t have to take place during a live concert in which the musicians are also performing choreography for two hours — without sheet music. The songs of Fosse/Verdon, which included “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” were originally written for musical theater. That doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult to play, but they were composed with the intention that a live orchestra would do so for eight shows a week on Broadway.
Listen to the Fosse/Verdon version of “All That Jazz,” the opening number of Chicago and one of the most iconic songs in musical theater history:
Sometimes songwriters will torture Broadway musicians with arrangements that test the limits of human endurance, but it’s usually vocalists who suffer. That’s what happened to Audra McDonald when she did Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Her teacher’s assistant at Juilliard described the role as “difficult” and a “voice-killer” because of the range it demanded and the frequency of the performances. In a 2012 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, McDonald spoke about the arduous task of singing “What You Want With Bess” eight times a week.
When Beyoncé took the stage in April 2018 at Coachella, the festival livestreamed the performance. In real time, the singer’s contemporaries marveled at what she’d accomplished.
“How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage,” tweeted Questlove. “I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that s— woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”
If Questlove, who is about as experienced and virtuosic a bandleader as a person can be, declares that the job would have given him anxiety, that’s a good indication that what’s taking place onstage is extraordinary.
So why didn’t the television academy see it that way?
“It’s got everything to do with the voting membership, which skews much older, whiter, and more male than the industry or audience,” tweeted actor Rebecca Metz, who plays Tressa on the FX show Better Things. “The awards reflect their taste and viewing habits. I’m on a mission to recruit young, diverse members for this very reason.”
Let’s turn to the broader picture: What makes Homecoming uniquely great television? What Beyoncé accomplished in two performances at Coachella and with the Homecoming documentary is like a Broadway show. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there’s a story. Remember, the Emmy is not for the live performance itself but for the documentary. We’re asking specific questions here: How do Homecoming and Carpool Karaoke, which won the Emmy, function as pieces of television? What do they offer visually? What role does the music play in the delivery of a larger narrative?
Again, Beyoncé is operating in a space that’s not dissimilar from her competition. Corden, before becoming a late-night host, was an actor. He sings and dances, as evidenced by his stints hosting the Tony Awards. Both Corden and Beyoncé are invested in a type of musical theatricality. Corden is just more self-effacing about it.
“Carpool Karaoke,” Corden’s running gag on The Late Late Show, is reliably great. Corden has a magical capacity for disarming his guests. He offers a fun, anodyne form of celebrity schmoozing that isn’t weighted with self-serious pretension. It’s viral internet gold: Corden drives around with popular musical artists, sings their songs with them, and the whole thing is recorded. Past participants include rappers Migos, singer Adele and even then-first lady Michelle Obama, who rode with artist Missy Elliott.
Look at the episode of Carpool Karaoke that won the Emmy for best variety special (prerecorded) over Homecoming, in which Corden sings with Paul McCartney while driving around the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England.
There’s some editing that takes place when Corden and McCartney are singing the “beep beep beep beeps” of “Drive My Car.” Clearly the show was able to get McCartney to do the bit at least twice, once in the passenger seat and then once as the driver, with both edited together.
Beyoncé does something similar in Homecoming, but she takes it to the extremes we have come to expect but perhaps do not appreciate. Homecoming editors Alexander Hammer and Andrew Morrow are responsible for a great cut that takes place about 6 minutes and 15 seconds into Homecoming, when the band, dancers and steppers are transitioning from “Crazy in Love” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” First, the band is facing the cameras dressed in yellow. When Juvenile says, “Drop it,” the band members turn. Their backs are to the crowd, and everyone is in candy pink — which was the color of the uniforms for the second Coachella performance. The two were cut together, and the effect is almost supernatural. For that tiny bit of visual trickery to work, all 151 performers had to hit their marks at the same time, in the exact spots, for both performances, doing JaQuel Knight’s choreography.
That’s not for the Coachella audience — that’s just for television.
By the way, that choreography is informed by the history of New Orleans. While it’s identified in modern parlance as twerking, the moves go back to the days of segregated New Orleans, when black dancers performed in the city’s nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, such as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tick Tock Tavern. They performed something called “shake dancing,” one of the many descendants of the mixed-race social dance that took place at events known as quadrilles, held in 19th-century New Orleans ballrooms.
Shake dancing, as LaKisha Simmons explains in Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, was not just an illicit thrill. It was a rejection of respectability politics and of arbitrary definitions of propriety. It represented creativity and sexual freedom, two of the themes that pervade Beyoncé’s oeuvre. But it wasn’t seen in such generous terms by white writers documenting the culture of Rampart Street, or well-to-do blacks who avoided it. So putting the dance moves of these women onstage at Coachella and setting them off with sequins, discipline and precision becomes a way of honoring them and their labor.
In executing her Coachella set, Beyoncé elevated to an enormous stage an aspect of American culture that tends to be overlooked and misunderstood: the role of HBCUs in shaping pop culture. She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora. She repeatedly demonstrated how the mélange of cultures in Louisiana, from the French whites to Afro-Caribbean residents to enslaved and free African Americans, influenced American culture.
“At least two centuries had passed since those unnamed slaves Thomas Nicholls observed had helped their mistresses in and out of their shoes, so that the white ladies could learn routines increasingly redolent of Africa, perhaps while their servants snuck away to try out some French steps of their own,” NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, making the connection between New Orleans quadrille balls and Beyoncé’s decision to appear in the music video for “Formation” as both a quadroon and a bounce dancer. “In that long span, countless dances had been danced, many identities blended and forced apart. The taboo baby had grown up and become a matriarch.”
Beyoncé was able to seamlessly and coherently weave together the words and cultural contributions of Nina Simone, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison and others with contemporary figures such as Lil Yachty, Fast Life Yungstaz, Sister Nancy and O.T. Genasis. She pulled from the go-go sounds of Washington, D.C., the horn-heavy jazz of New Orleans, J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and the music of her own husband, just to name a few, within an epic recounting of her 25-year repertoire. It was all valid, all valuable, all part of a vast quilt of what it means to be black, to be a woman, what it means to be American, to be human. And she was the vessel embodying all of it, from the militant self-love of Malcolm X to the regality of Nefertiti.
In that way, the work is euphoric, forward-looking and optimistic, even as it’s held together by the glue of the past.
The shows in which Verdon danced and Fosse directed and choreographed are in no danger of being overlooked. Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Certainly the legacy of the Beatles has been well-appreciated. These artists have been beatified with awards and decades of recognition.
But the musical and dance tradition that informs so much of American pop music, beyond Beyoncé’s, isn’t regarded with the same reverence for its innovation, its influence, its history. Instead, it remains marginalized as part of the African American story rather than the American story.
What a shame that American institutions such as the television academy still bypass recognition of the epic historical record and scholarship embedded within Beyoncé’s music because it is easier to see it in work that’s long been regarded as classic. This time it is they who have lost, not she.
ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.
The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.
“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.
This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.
But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.
21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.
“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”
A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.
“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.
The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.
He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.
“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”
“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”
The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.
“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.
21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.
The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.
But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.
When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.
“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”
21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.
“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”
Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”
“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”
NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.
Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.
In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”
He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.
On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.
“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”
Kyler Murray’s custom Air Jordan 1 Low for tonight’s draft. The green light post is a symbol of his dreams and what he hopes to accomplish in his career. pic.twitter.com/RdnkM4nbvp
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 25, 2019
Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.
“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”
Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”
— Kyler Murray (@TheKylerMurray) April 24, 2019
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.
“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”
The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”
Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.
“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”
Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.
“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”
Janelle Monáe wants you to fight oppression. And she wants you to do it as part of a gleeful, unapologetic army of self-loving black women.
Hence the synth-heavy, dance-pop vibe of her third studio album, Dirty Computer, which drops today. A 44-minute narrative film that accompanies the album aired Thursday night on BET and MTV. It’s set during a totalitarian regime far enough into the future that everyone drives hover cars and people are simply known as “computers.” When people are deemed “dirty,” when they don’t fit society’s vision for what they should be, their minds are reprogrammed and erased of all the memories that have made them aberrant. The videos Monáe published in the run-up to the film release (Dirty Computer, Pynk, Make Me Feel, Django Jane and I Like That) are all memories this clean regime seeks to delete.
Dirty Computer, and especially “Pynk,” will be remembered as a stunning coming-out for Monáe, who identifies as pansexual. So much popular art that touches on the lives of queer black women is filled with hardship, even when the endings are happy. The words, imagery and circumstances of works like The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, Rent and even Pariah feature women whose lives are demonstrably more difficult because of their queerness.
There’s anxiety in Dirty Computer — after all, their supposed unfitness for society is why the computers are being summoned for memory deletion — but misery doesn’t dominate the narrative. The dirty computers of the world are going to take it over. And when they do, everyone’s gonna be happy about it.
“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power and to the abusers of power,” Monáe said during an interview this week at the New York office of Atlantic Records, where she was curled up on a sofa in a floor-length fuchsia skirt and fitted black sequin jacket. “It was just important for us to come together, as unique beings, and for the world to see us celebrating ourselves individually and collectively.”
Dirty Computer is an unambiguous response to the election of Donald Trump, powered by fury, to be sure. (You try to grab my p—y, this p—y grab you back, she warns on “I Got The Juice.”) But mostly, the album is joyful, reveling in the pleasures of erotic and romantic vulnerability. And it is loudly, happily, delightfully queer.
Monáe has said repeatedly that her choice to wear a “uniform” of black-and-white clothing, usually tuxedos, for her public appearances was a way to honor her working-class parents, who both wore uniforms in their jobs. But Monáe’s restricted wardrobe was also a shield for her life. She had a tendency to, as she says, “self-edit.”
Well, that Janelle Monáe is gone. Dirty Computer is awash in color, and the most important one in her new palette is pink, as evidenced in the video for “Pynk.” That would be the video featuring Monáe dancing in what can only be described as labia pants, a celebration of all things black and sapphic, starring Monáe’s repeat leading lady, actress Tessa Thompson.
“I love that you called them labia pants,” Monáe said. “Some people just say vagina pants, which is fine. Some people call it the flower, which is all cool. I just thought it would be an interesting way to celebrate women. Not all women have labias or vaginas, so you have some women who don’t have them on. I tried to represent as many as I possibly could, but it is so impossible to represent all of us.”
Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, but is now based in Atlanta. That’s where she was discovered by Big Boi and where she’s set up her Wondaland record label. She’s part of a soul sisterhood of strange Southern women that includes Solange, who is from Houston, and Erykah Badu, who is, at least by the limits of our earthly understanding, from Dallas. Their hobohemia is the place to be these days. Both Solange and Badu collaborated with Monáe on her last album, The Electric Lady. The director Alan Ferguson, who is married to Solange, directed several videos for Dirty Computer, including “Make Me Feel,” with its Prince-composed synth riff and clear allusions to “Kiss.” And the more laid-back tracks on Monáe’s foray into the ’80s share a vibe with Solange’s 2012 EP True.
But Monáe’s work also calls to mind another daughter of Houston: Beyoncé. Both women boast exacting tastes when it comes to aesthetics and a dedication to labor that’s evident in their work. But Monáe also had to find a way to let her true self shine through the alter ego and alternate, futuristic universe she’d created. Her perfectionist tendencies were a creative obstruction.
“It’s something that is really getting in the way of me finishing not this project, but all my projects,” she said. “It isn’t a good way of living and being a perfectionist. It’s not fun. It’s not cool to me, actually. I still pay very close attention to detail, but when I stop enjoying the experience and when it starts getting in the way of me being in the present moment and it starts to mentally wear me down, I have got to stop.”
She sounded remarkably similar to Beyoncé speaking about her own perfectionist tendencies in Life Is But a Dream, the singer’s 2013 HBO documentary. The similarities don’t stop there. Both women have dedicated their art to speaking explicitly about racial injustice and celebrating people who find themselves othered in some way.
“When you look on TV, you see the leader of the free world and that whole regime not giving a f— about your family and those who look like you,” Monáe said after a Dirty Computer screening this week. “The color of your skin can just get you escorted out of a Starbucks for having a business meeting. You can be in your own backyard and a police officer mistakes your phone for a gun, and you’re murdered.”
Some may find an obvious point of comparison between Lemonade and Dirty Computer, but a more apt one would be to Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album. It was her first visual narrative project and, like Dirty Computer, Beyoncé’s self-titled album was an announcement of a sexual awakening. It was a celebration that comes with being a woman who’s realized that the rules governing women’s bodies and behavior are a load of hogwash. Dirty Computer, with its visions of dancing labias and celebration of bisexual, polyamorous relationships, does the same.
Beyoncé has created a path for modern black women to be their full public selves without apology, something Monáe acknowledged in an Instagram post about Beychella. “My QUEEN for life,” she wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of Beyoncé in her Nefertiti cape. “Always. And forever. You continuously make me feel so proud to be a Black woman & artist. Last night was EXCEPTIONAL. We must protect you at all costs!”
The two albums also mark both women’s embrace of uttering the F-word aloud. They say it with a naughty deliberateness, delighting in the shock that comes from hearing such a dirty word uttered by women eager to slough off projections of pretty, proper respectability.
“I say ‘f—’ in the album a lot,” Monáe acknowledged. “I know. It’s because I give a f—. I give several f—s about our future.”
With her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (the Chase), Monáe created an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who was part of a futuristic society, and through three albums led listeners through the world she’d created. Monáe knows how to craft an upbeat hit that makes you want to get off your feet, like “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” But the personal nature of Dirty Computer is more evident than in her previous three albums. It begins with an acknowledgment that the country is not living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, something that really came into focus for Monáe after the 2016 presidential election.
But the silver lining is that Monáe decided to stop being polite and start getting real. On “Crazy, Classic, Life” she sings:
I am not America’s nightmare.
I am the American dream.
Just let me live my life.
We don’t need another ruler.
We don’t need another fool.
Monáe debuted Dirty Computer at a screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this week, which was followed by a Q&A with internet celebrity Franchesca Ramsey, and she addressed the difference.
“I feel like for a while I was just writing songs so that they can be helpful to other people, and now I feel like I need them more than ever myself,” she said. “I’m learning to really walk in it and really embrace taking my beauty, even if it makes others uncomfortable — not just going slowly but being like, you gotta do that. You have to walk it. Walk it like I talk it.”
On “Django Jane,” Monáe revels, suited up as Jane Bond, in the sort of egocentric posturing we commonly associate with male rappers. She delivers a flow that suggests time spent with her Wondaland label artist Jidenna while giving listeners a moment that recalls the grimy boastfulness of “Bow Down/I Been On.”
Dirty Computer is packed with visual, sonic and thematic influences — including Prince, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Blondie, Black Mirror, Thelma and Louise, Oscar Wilde, even the video for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” — woven within its joyful call to arms. She’s still Janelle Monáe, just more than she’s ever been before. And her insistence on her American-ness, her continued homages to her working-class roots, her undeniable attraction to killer guitar riffs, make her a Bruce Springsteen for the majority-minority America of the future.
Growing up in Samira Wiley’s home, you could tell which day of the week it was by which type of shows were on television.
If it was Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday — her days — the vibe was MTV, VH1 or BET. On Mondays and Fridays, when her younger brother Joshua ruled the remote control, it was all about ESPN. Home was Prince George’s County, Maryland (she grew up in Fort Washington), and it was there that her love of performance and all things entertainment, with a pinch of athleticism, was fostered. When she and Joshua weren’t duking it out over the television, they were changing in and out of sports uniforms, hitting their respective playing fields and tearing it up in the name of competitive sports.
Wiley ran track — cross country. And she played soccer. And basketball. And for just one day, she recalls, her index finger against the side of her face, she played lacrosse. “Me and my brother,” she said, laughing, “we used to play right forward and left forward for the soccer team we were on. … Those were the glory days of my athletic prowess.”
She’s laughing because her days as a would-be superstar athlete are all behind her — unless someone comes a-calling with a sports role that needs to be brought to life. By now, everyone knows that she spent 50 episodes starring as the beloved Poussey on Netflix’s addictive and groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black. Her character’s demise struck a chord.
“For so long, I just wanted to be an actor,” said Wiley, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. It was still like a dream. I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me. We talk about getting typecast in my industry, and I didn’t want that to happen after Poussey.”
The character was killed by a prison guard, which sparked a protest at the fictional female detention facility. The fallout around the killing of Poussey came at a time when national headlines felt eerily familiar and #BlackLivesMatter had perhaps reached peak battle cry. “She was someone I fell in love with,” said Wiley, “and lot of people offered me roles on other things [that] felt [like] Poussey.” Poussey was a young gay woman who made some mistakes and landed in a federal prison. Post-Poussey, the Juilliard-trained Wiley wanted to flex her acting muscles in a way than the world had yet to see.
And now she’s entering season two of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that many critics say mirrors the Trump era. The show is set in a not-so-far-off future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Pure coincidence, considering that the series is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and the series was filming before the 2016 presidential election. The women in Atwood’s fictional world are subjected to misogyny in a patriarchal society, but over the first season viewers watched them fight for individualism and independence. This all seems very in line with the current political climate and the brave outpouring of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wiley. “Because specifically … of my own journey with my queerness, and that also being a part of the typecast, I didn’t want to keep playing gay characters. I wanted people to see me as other things.” Last year Wiley married Lauren Morelli, whom she met while working on Orange. Morelli is a writer on the show. “I was unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood,” said Wiley, “but my wife wasn’t. [Atwood] is one of her favorite authors. [Lauren] was like, ‘If you’re gonna be gay for somebody, you need to be gay for this. I know you’re out here trying to do your thing and be all the colors of the rainbow, but if you’re gonna do it, this is the one.’ ”
Atwood’s world was white. The series creator, Bruce Miller, wanted to diversify near-future New England. “The decision to have people of color in this world stems … from him saying, ‘I don’t want to make a f—ing TV show with a bunch of white people.’ That’s literally where it stems from … like, ‘I don’t want to be a creator in this [kind of] world right now, even if this is the book.’ ” She says that was nice to hear.
“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way,” said Wiley. “They’re relevant. They’re saying something that society needs to hear. I think [my future] is about … keeping that voice that’s relevant but also having a fun career.
“I’m very blessed, and I’m happy to be here. … I got into acting because I have a wonderful sense of play. … Sometimes I want to make sure that I remember for myself that, yeah, you also want to play and go put on a wig and be a character that you haven’t been before.”
And maybe one day she’ll wear a sports uniform again.
The baseball cap seems innocuous enough. A brimmed hat emblazoned with a team logo for players to wear while on the field for protection from the sun. Simple. But over the past couple of decades, the baseball cap has become a lightning rod. Depending on the direction it is turned, or who wears it, the cap is a stand-in for the sport’s racially contentious past … and present. From legends such as Ken Griffey Jr. to newcomers such as Ronald Acuña, the baseball cap has been as divisive as a Subway Series.
When is a hat not a hat?
Acuña walked into an Atlanta Braves training camp interview on Feb. 15 and left having been asked to make a sartorial change.
The Venezuelan outfielder signed with the Braves in 2014 and honed his skills with various minor league teams, getting ready for the big leagues. He’s dominated, garnering comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. for his play, and his swagger. The buzz around him, and superior performance has led him to be named the top baseball prospect entering the 2018 season and has allowed him the leverage to turn down the Braves’ $30 million offer in the offseason. The Braves and the city of Atlanta are head over heels for Acuña and the possibility of what he can bring to the franchise when he gets called up from the Gwinnett Stripers minor league squad at some point this season.
But first, there was that training camp interview.
Braves manager Brian Snitker called Acuña in to address his cap. Acuña had been wearing his hat tilted to the side, and a little bit off of his head because his thick locs were making it impossible for the cap to fit perfectly. The style balked at tradition.
Tradition. Major League baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, Latin American athletes, and has launched a diversity pipeline initiative to create more executive positions for people of color, but Major League Baseball and its fans seemingly long for the years of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb. When ESPN ranked the top 100 MLB players of all time in 2015, six of the top 10 players had played before integration. CBS’s 2016 list of its top 10 players also features six players from a segregated league. So when baseball fans talk about traditions or years past, they are talking about a time that excluded black athletes. And that’s not the only hard pill to swallow.
Other baseball traditions and taboos are alienating to black and Latino fans. Players are supposed to respectfully trot around the diamond after home runs, sans backflips or excessive celebrations. The same self-expression in the form of chest-pounding, trash talk and playing to the crowd that has made the NBA hip — and black — isn’t allowed in baseball. Celebratory dances are frowned upon, part of a culture of unwritten rules with a simple message: Fall in line.
For example, in 2013, Yasiel Puig was pulled to the side by opposing Mets players for rubbing their noses in his home run trot. His offense? Taking 32 seconds to round the bases. All of this is code for following traditions set in stone before black and white and Latino athletes played in the same pro league(s), and when fans were segregated in the stands. And part of those baseball customs is making sure players wear their hats straight.
“It’s the look,” Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 2. “You do respect the game and the organization and the team on the front of it [the hat]. I tell these guys, we don’t do things like everybody else. There’s a lot of Hall of Famers who spent a lot of time in this organization. We wear batting practice jerseys, and people don’t put glasses on over the ‘A,’ things like that, out of respect for the Hall of Famers that put a lot into this organization, and all those flags that are hanging.”
With all due respect, Snitker’s point is not only silly but it’s another reminder that baseball is about its archaic traditions —the Braves organization was founded in 1871, for reference — more than its players, and what those players represent. Acuña, by all indication, is a transformative talent who can turn the Braves’ future around — the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2013 and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001. The organization is concerned about how he wears his hat, even as plenty of white Braves players have worn their hats backward, to the side and every other way besides straight.
The Acuña hat issue isn’t a new thing. It’s been around, most famously since the ’90s, when the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. was a young, swaggy outfielder who seemed poised to take over baseball. But his appearance — backward hats and untucked jerseys — flouted baseball tradition, and one of the biggest defenders of old customs was then-Yankees and current Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
“I shouldn’t say this publicly,” Showalter told the New York Times Magazine in 1994. “But a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” Showalter added Barry Bonds to his list of transgressors for having his shirttail untucked at the All-Star game. “To me, that’s a lack of respect for the game.” Respect. Tradition. Coded language.
What people who share Showalter’s views didn’t understand or don’t want to understand is that Griffey, who only actually wore his hat backward for batting practice, wore his hats backward as a tribute to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. When Griffey Jr. wore his dad’s hats, they were too big, so his turned them backward so they’d fit. Then he just kept doing it, into his pro career. There isn’t a bigger sign of respect for tradition than honoring a father who also used to play in the very same MLB that wanted to maintain said customs. But the controversy wasn’t about why Griffey wore his hat backward. Nobody seemed to care. They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.
Griffey wasn’t afraid to hit back at his detractors. “Why should I care about a person from an opposing team?” Griffey said to the Seattle Times a week after Showalter’s quotes surfaced. “I don’t take the game seriously? Why, I do believe [Showalter] was coaching third for the All-Star team when I won the  MVP.”
The criticism obviously stuck with Griffey, so he poked at the MLB one last time. When he received his Hall of Fame hat in 2016 during his acceptance speech, the first thing he did was turn it backward. One more reminder that he did it his way.
So what does this all mean for baseball as a whole? It’s about cultural irrelevance. Baseball’s reliance on homogenized traditions is its own Trojan horse, infiltrating the sport’s psyche and destroying it from the inside. Holding on to archaic practices that erase unique expressions uphold whiteness but close the sport off to audiences from diverse backgrounds. And for black fans, it’s demoralizing to see people who look like us, and express themselves like we do get constantly reprimanded for representing our cultural tics on a national stage. It’s a major reason black audiences are flocking to the NBA and the MLB has as few black players as ever.
Here’s a legendary story about Satchel Paige. During a semi-pro game, before his Negro League debut, Paige’s team was up 1-0 in the ninth inning. His outfielders made three straight errors to load the bases. Paige, fed up with his team and determined to show off his skill, walked around the bases and outfield, demanding that his teammates sit down in the infield. Then the legendary pitcher struck out the next three batters to end the game.
It’s a story that has become part of baseball lore for its brashness, showmanship and drama. And it’s the same type of story that would get someone like Paige punished for his bravado if it happened in 2018. However, that story is part of baseball tradition. It’s a part of black tradition. And baseball needs to embrace these traditions — alternative hat placements and all — or else become a cultural relic instead of regaining its place as America’s pastime.
UPDATE—Ora Mae Washington is a part of the newest Basketball Hall of Fame class.
Every year around this time, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces who it will enshrine in September from among hundreds of eligible players, coaches, referees and contributors.
Since 2007, I’ve been publishing a list of African-American pioneers from the mostly forgotten Black Fives Era of basketball who, in my opinion, are its most deserving candidates for enshrinement in the Hall.
The Black Fives Era lasted from 1904 — when basketball was first introduced to African-Americans on a large-scale, organized basis — to the racial integration of the NBA in 1950. During this period, dozens of all-black teams emerged, flourished and excelled.
One individual, Ora Mae Washington, has been on my list since the first one in 2007. Few realize that this sports pioneer, born in Virginia on Jan. 23, 1898, and raised in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, regardless of race.
During the 1930s and ’40s, she won 11 straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship titles — 12 total. Washington also won nine straight women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937 with the American Tennis Association, an all-black governing body formed to counter the racially exclusive United States Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA). She also won 12 straight ATA doubles championships, starting in 1925.
Washington is a forgotten trailblazer not only because the history of the Black Fives Era was long overlooked but also because she was at her peak during a time when female participation in rigorous athletic competition was frowned upon. Why? There were the standard concerns about exploitation and the risk of exhaustion for the daintier sex. Bowling, swimming, tennis and golf, were OK, but basketball? Not so much. What’s more, these archaic views were shared and promoted by some of America’s leading women at the time.
As a result, starting in the 1920s, sports educators and authorities began a systematic effort to curtail female hoops. In 1923, the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation launched a campaign against women’s competition in high schools and colleges as well as in the Olympic Games, under the leadership of Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. secretary of commerce. Lou Henry Hoover was also the national president of the Girl Scouts of America.
These efforts were devastatingly effective. By 1930, only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges had women’s varsity basketball teams, down from nearly a quarter just a decade earlier. Women’s basketball was nipped in the bud just as interest and participation were beginning to blossom, and right when the pipeline for its growth was being established.
The insidious hidden effect of these efforts was to solidify a warped perception of the roles that men and women were “supposed” to play in American society as a whole.
Nevertheless, Washington walked into this context without blinking an eye.
As a youngster, she was a tennis prodigy and had already become famous through that sport by the time basketball caught her attention. In 1930, she joined all-black Germantown Hornets, a squad connected to the country’s first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, established in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1918. She promptly led the team to a 22-1 record and the Colored Women’s National Championship title for 1930-31.
In late 1931, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest black newspaper, organized a new African-American female team known as the Tribune Girls. Washington left the Germantown squad to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season, setting the “Newsgirls” up to dominate African-American women’s basketball for the next decade. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” Soon, Washington was being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world” and became the first black female sports superstar.
African-American women’s basketball teams were commonly known by their once politically correct, now bewildering, nicknames, such as Sepia Amazons of the maple court, Chocolate Coeds, dusky hardwood lassies, bronze hoopettes, brown femme casaba squads and, my favorite, African floor queens.
But despite the growing list of independent female all-black basketball squads, the Tribune Girls had no real rivals, so they looked to historically black colleges and universities for competition.
During the Great Depression, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite. The school enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African-American women’s collegiate team, and perhaps the best overall black female squad, in the country by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett Girls lost only one college game.
Naturally, folks had to know which of the two teams was better, so a showdown was scheduled in 1934: a weeklong, three-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.
For their first game, the Tribune Girls showed up in new red-and-white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops and matching socks. At halftime, they changed into fresh purple-and-gold outfits. Their hot new looks set the tone. Behind shooting that was described as “almost supernatural,” the Tribunes swept the series. “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern-day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”
Washington’s ferocious intensity made her unstoppable. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups,” she once told a reporter. “I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along.” Despite her size, Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” the Bennett player recalled. “But she was fast.”
The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a turning point for women’s sports, as it ushered in a renewed interest in female intercollegiate athletic programs overall, beyond the African-American community and beyond basketball. During the 1937-38 season, the team reportedly traveled more than 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.
Together with her tennis accolades, Washington’s presence on the sports stage shattered many previously existing notions about race and gender.
She almost single-handedly filled the two-decade void between the 1920s, when Lou Henry Hoover locked down female athletes, and the 1950s, when African-American tennis star Althea Gibson burst onto the national sports scene.
I mention Gibson, specifically, because in 1950 she became the first black player to compete in any United States Lawn Tennis Association event. A year later, she was the first African-American athlete invited to compete at Wimbledon.
Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and then won back-to-back titles at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 before retiring from official competition. The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year for both of those seasons, signaling to the world that African-American women in sports could no longer be denied.
Where did Gibson grow up as a young tennis prodigy? Who was her tennis mentor? You guessed it — in Philadelphia under the watchful and protective wing of Washington. Washington not only trained her but also was her teammate in ATA doubles competitions during the late 1940s.
Gibson was followed by new women’s sports icons such as Wilma Rudolph and then, of course, many other female athletes, all who could trace their lineage back to Washington’s original superstardom. It would take another generation of achievement and breakthroughs before the advent of Title IX in 1972 allowed collegiate athletic scholarships for women.
Today, record numbers of female Olympians represent the United States; 292 competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, actually outnumbering men for the second Olympiad in a row, and 109 competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their athletic lineage can be traced back to Washington’s original pioneering efforts.
Unfortunately, Washington’s fame as an athlete did not last and she was mostly forgotten. After retiring from basketball and tennis in the late 1940s, there were few career options open to African-American women, so she made a living as a housekeeper. Sadly, her death in 1971 went virtually unnoticed.
However, in 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 2004 a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy was dedicated outside the original Germantown Colored YWCA building where she began her sports career.
Washington’s pioneering contributions to sports went far beyond basketball. Based on her hardwood achievements alone, she deserves enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.