Apesh*t Is a Beautiful Middle Finger to The Racist “Blacks are Apes” Belief
Roseanne Barr’s ambien infused racist Twitter tirade a few months ago may have cost her her job because she hit a particular cultural nerve. Specifically, she called former aide to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, a baby of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.” Although Roseanne claimed the tweet wasn’t racist because “Muslim is not a race,” Wanda Sykes, a non-Muslim Black actor, bowed out of Roseanne’s show almost immediately. I can only imagine how Sykes felt to see her fellow comedian use one of the oldest racist sentiments in the book: that Black people are basically apes, they’re less evolved, less than human.
I know this stereotype exists because I’ve studied it. In a global study (that unfortunately has yet to be published) following up on Phil Goff and his colleagues’ 2008 findings that Americans think of apes when they see Black faces, and vice versa, an international group of psychologists found that people associate Blacks in their country with ape words all over the world. It was depressing to see the association pop up again and again in country after country. These were mostly Western countries (Canada, Belgium, England, Italy, and more) and the findings confirmed for us that in countries where Blacks are the minority there are beliefs that they are less human than people of European descent. (We always compared this against another negatively stereotyped group in that country. For example, in the United States we found that Latinos were not associated with apes but weren’t exactly loved by Whites.)
In my own research, I looked for the ways that this belief stayed alive, even in an era of political correctness and celebrations of diversity. My search focused on the way we (mis)understand our own evolution. When I’d read news articles, blog posts, and even children’s books I found that we humans loved to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, with evidence that we’re the smartest species that ever existed always present. Often this evidence included our “leaving” Africa to populate the rest of the planet, implying that there was no one still there or that those that stayed are older, less evolved, versions of humans.
But, importantly, the evidence of our species’ genius routinely included references to art, and exclusively Western (White) art. Mozart made a lot of appearances. Leonardo da Vinci made some cameos. Even our ability to see the beauty in their art was heralded as a result of our massive brains and unique intelligence (we really are full of ourselves). I believe that these references did as much as the blond, White man representing “humanity” in the visual depictions of our evolution to continue the dangerous, and scientifically inaccurate, belief that Blacks are less evolved, that they are closer to apes.
Then Beyoncé and Jay Z’s song, and video for, “Apeshit” came along. I knew they were referencing this dehumanizing portrayal. I mean, if you really think Black people are closer to gorillas than humans, I hope you had some pearls to clutch as you heard them describe their mountains of wealth and watched them take over one of the most culturally sacred White spaces on the planet.
The lyrics themselves make many references to apes, starting with the title. It seems like Beyoncé is just mostly pointing out how these two “apes” have been able to accumulate ungodly amounts of wealth.
But Jay Z puts a ton of ape references in his verses:
I’m a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe
Finna pull up in the zoo
I’m like Chief Keef meet Rafiki, who been lyin’ “King” to you?
Pocket, watch it, like kangaroos
Tell these clowns we ain’t amused
‘Nana clips for that monkey business, 4–5 got change for you
Motor cade when we came through
Presidential with the planes too
One better get you with the residential
Undefeated with the cane too
I said no to the Superbowl, you need me, I don’t need you
Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too
Last night was a fuckin’ zoo
Stagedivin’ in a pool of people
Ran through Liverpool like a fuckin’ Beatle
Smoke gorilla glue like it’s fuckin’ legal
Tell the Grammy’s fuck that 0 for 8 shit
Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit? (Rah)
If you listen closely there are monkey sounds throughout the song, even in the first few seconds. They know what they’re doing and we haven’t even gotten to the video yet.
Oh, this video. To some people, the Carters’ blackness sullies the art in one the most iconic dedications to White genius in the world: The Louvre Museum in Paris. Their dancers’ dark, writhing bodies are the antithesis to the static, high culture on the walls that portrays overwhelmingly White subjects. It’s like having “damn, dirty apes” running amok in a church.
And I am in absolute love with it.
This video is an ode to Blackness in a world in which Black = animal. Not only are there Black people in this sacred space but they do Blackness, too. My absolute favorite scene is of a female dancer quietly doing a Black man’s hair in front of the Mona Lisa (which is also the single’s cover). Importantly, the Mona Lisa is out of focus. It’s like the Carters are saying, “Our most mundane Blackness is equivalent to your most genius Whiteness.” They are not messing around.
I don’t know if I would describe this as a reappropriation (in the way that the Black community has reappropriated the “n word”) but it’s definitely a calling out. It’s letting certain people know that they know that no matter how much money they make, they’ll still be thought of as Black, with all of the negative connotations that comes with. So, to some extent The Carters are redefining Blackness on a global level because they know they uniquely have the power to do so. And sometimes, the best way to deal with being called an animal is to pull out a mirror and show who the real animals are, because it’s often the ones hiding behind their fancy art and their iphone keyboards.