Hip Hop, Film, Television, and Their Roles in America’s Next Paradigm Shift
By now it should be common knowledge that the birth of the feature length film can be traced back to DW Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr’s novel and play The Clansman, which Griffith then re-titled The Birth of a Nation. This epic masterpiece created the precedent for many of the editing and storytelling techniques filmmakers inherently use to this day. In film school, they will never let you forget it.
Just a decade removed from momentum created by Dixon Jr’s Clansman and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, The Birth of a Nation was the first film to be played in the White House. 101 years later, a film of the same name representing the antithesis to the rise of the Confederacy — Nat Turner and one of the most discussed slave rebellions in history — was released to a lackluster reception, finding it’s spot near the middle of the highest grossing Black-centric films of 2016. It will not be played at the White House during the nation’s first black presidency. It’s no fault of Obama or any particular individual, just worth noting that the 100+ year lifespan of film can be traced to the times between the release of two films by the same name which represent the epitomes of the two major ideologies that form collective American culture. A culture which seems to undergo fundamental changes every fifty years or so. Some semblance of rebellion lies at the core of the American public’s ideology.
People may adopt different titles: radicals, patriots, moderates, deplorables, progressives… though, America’s original sins still manage to periodically reappear for the whole country to get reacquainted to every fifty years. The dehumanization of imported Africans, the genocide of Native Americans, and the consolidation of the nation’s wealth and power are legacies that remain unreckoned with, halting the robust and holistic reform America needs to survive past a Roman Empire-like fall. The media landscapes throughout America’s history have attempted and partially succeeded in sweeping pressing issues under the rug. Sparse confrontations with these issues through film and television have created meaningful dialogue and action at times. For example Frank Stanton, president of CBS from 1946 to 1973, advocated for broadcasters to engage in a moral crusade to promote civil rights. The Smothers Brothers, All in the Family, School Daze, In Living Color, Crash, and The Wire are just a few examples of projects that showed at least the intent to bridge divides — creating momentum for social progress and instilling broader perspectives on how the nation truly functions.
The difficulty in celebrating momentum in the U.S. is that it is an illusion, since progress is never progress for all. If one group takes strides towards prosperity, overt and covert enemies strategize against it until the paradigm pendulum swings in their favor. Which brings us to modern times: the first Tuesday after the Atlanta finale, less than half of the American voting public elected Donald Trump president.
Let’s think about communication and the internet, basketball and the sky hook, music and the synthesizer, policing and the invention of SWAT, the guitar receiving it’s fifth string. Now think of film and television, with the embrace of new voices previously shut out of the means to achieve accurate representation. The lyrics and sonic qualities of today, the uptick in high quality projects, and the intersection of a plethora of art forms by means of multi-talented artist-producers, all give credence to the claim that we are rewriting the Black American story among other historically unrepresented populations. This reclaiming is taking place in indie films, major studio films, television, streaming services, social media, in a stadium near you, and in album-accompanied film projects by the likes of Kendrick Lamar (God is Gangsta, m.A.A.d.), Frank Ocean (Endless), Beyonce (Lemonade), Vince Staples (Prima Donna), Pusha-T (Darkest Before Dawn), and Schoolboy Q (Blank Face LP Short Series) just to name a few. Kid Art, Yung Jake, and Tyler, the Creator also present examples of Hip Hop artists with roots in the visual and cinematic arts. (Belly will not be referenced here because it deserves it’s own college courses let alone a few sentences of praise by some no-name kid)
Beyond cultural and artistic layers, every institution in the U.S. can be improved to fit the demands of the clear and present on-demand economy, to prosper in the Information Age, and to cater to the generation growing amidst all of this. Movements for equality, justice, and civil rights have made strides in institutional change but when the energies of these movements merge with the momentum behind Hip Hop and new media, fundamental change in how our society functions is something I have hope in seeing manifest. YG’s 400 Waze program; Vince Staples’ partnership with Long Beach councilman Rex Richardson to create the Youth Institute at a Long Beach YMCA; Nipsey Hussle’s partnership with LA City Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson to help bring in 2-billion dollars in investment with hopes of establishing more Black businesses to the always developing Crenshaw District; the Hip Hop Caucus’ multiple civic engagement campaigns; Color of Change forcing Glen Beck and COPS off of FOX’s broadcast rotation; and Killer Mike’s overt support for specific policies, among many other publicized and unpublicized deeds, reveal the power of constituencies, not just fans or supporters. Applying undeniable imprints on various industries, influencing public policy, becoming owners of businesses and land, endorsing self-sufficient lifestyles, and continuing to be the world’s premiere entertainers are a few values and impacts I eventually see Hip Hop contributing to American society.
We see how so many facets of life are tainted by the power that provides it. The criminal justice system isn’t broken. Lead pipes are where they are for a reason. Hollywood’s lack of inclusion is a result of a conscious neglect to the contributions of historically suppressed voices while actively suppressing them at the same time. It’s time that Hip Hop be harnessed as a motivational energy and philosophy to be leaders in this new world. We’re living in a post-a lot-of-things society, meaning a lot of industries and institutions are up for grabs.
Melvin Van Peebles’ unprecedented independent success with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971 created the sentiment that Black films by Black filmmakers could sell. Up until it’s release, no independent film had grossed as much as the approximately $15 million it raked in at small theaters and adult theaters. The Black Panthers added it to their list of suggested material. Hollywood took notice and perverted Peebles’ style by creating the Blaxploitation genre where the role of Peebles’ revolutionary caricature was warped into caricatures of pimps and drug dealers. In addition to Van Peebles’ paradigm shifting release, contemporary Black film is essentially tied to the birth of Hip Hop. The New York Blackout of 1977 spawned the spread of DJ equipment and the means for more people to participate in Hip Hop performances. The Zulu Nation is already established by this point and the phenomenon known as Rapper’s Delight would drop in ’79. This moment in time pushed forward the culture which inevitably inspired the artistic curiosity of America’s premiere Black director, Spike Lee, filming the Big Boom-like occurrence that was the New York Blackout of 1977 with a Super-8 camera.
Thirteen years later, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet, featuring Do the Right Thing anthem, Fight the Power and the overtly critical Burn Hollywood Burn. I find it beautifully ironic that Ice Cube delivers a potent guest verse on Burn Hollywood Burn because he provides one of the first moments of synergy with film and Hip Hop with his contributions to Boyz n the Hood and Friday. Around the same time Will Smith & Jazzy Jeff won Hip Hop’s first Grammy and became television stars. Decades later with Three Six Mafia’s Academy Award win and performance, the intersectionality between the two art forms appeared to be strong.
The culture has it’s eyes on the future like never before, and the next frontier seems clearly to be in the realm of film and television. The Noreaga’s, Jemele Hill’s, Desus’ and Mero’s, Issa Rae’s, Action Bronson’s, Roland Martin’s, Phonte’s, Bomani Jones’, Cheo Hodari Coker’s, and Ava Duvearney’s of the world will inherit a new media climate that will truly embrace and value them. The days of WB, UPN, and The CW created sentiments that we had arrived in the mainstream thanks to programs like The Jamie Foxx Show, Living Single, Martin, and many many others. But today, more high quality and far reaching platforms with immense spending power have arisen, and viewership stats among people of color have spiked. Markets for the likes of Queen Sugar, Chi-Raq (the now prosperous Amazon Studios’ first feature film), Underground, Luke Cage, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures among dozens of other projects have been legitimized, streamlining their process in securing one of many distribution methods to flourish.
As Jay-Z begins his tenure as producing partner with The Weinstein Company we are witnessing the genesis for what I hope to not just be a trend, but also a permanent factor in the entertainment industries. That genesis is of the wealthiest members of historically unrepresented populations being able to control all or most aspects in the telling of narratives pertaining to their identities (with a use of checks and balances of course; example: Dr. Dre not controlling every aspect of his portrayal in Straight Outta Compton made it possible to at least mention his domestic abuse history). Whether this moment in entertainment is attributed to a consolation or diversity quota of some kind; perhaps a result of the film and television industries being revealed as damn near exclusively white and male; or it be a genuine welcoming of the collective industry’s perceived “other” — these artists will gladly take the opportunity and run with it taking film and television to new heights beyond the old industry’s perception. This is how we operate. This is affirmative action lifting the consciousness of universities across the country. This is the desegregation of major national sports heightening the limits of athletics. This is MTV finally playing videos by Black artists. Truly, most Black folks are afro-futurists without knowing.
During the press conference which revealed the partnership between Jay-Z and TWC, Jay made a point that can apply to every Hip Hop artist with a sense that their role is to consistently tell truthful and meaningful stories. He stated, “I tell stories through different mediums… It’s all part of the same story. It’s all part of flawed characters finding some kind of evolution. The medium doesn’t matter. Artists in general have a sensitivity to telling stories… When you really tap into it and you’re doing it for the right reasons, you will be successful…”. Curtis Jackson (Power), Pharrell Williams (Hidden Figures), Queen Latifah (Bessie, The Art of Organized Noize), Dame Dash (Loisaidas), and Nas (The Land, The Get Down) among others can attest to this.
A$AP Rocky is also finding his way into this realm of power as he is backed by his creative company AWGE to assume the role of Creative Director for the newly developed MTV LABS. “In this role, Rocky and AWGE will have access to the company’s cross-platform production capabilities to create original content; experiment with new formats and existing MTV IP; and develop branded content for advertisers in partnership with Viacom Velocity.” (Business Wire) Rocky made it clear on Snoop Dogg’s GGN show that he wants to make MTV truly be music television again. He seems to have recognized a void in the television landscape that Diddy also picked up on prompting the establishment of Revolt TV.
Jay-Z’s first project with TWC will be TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-part docu-series detailing the false imprisonment of Kalief Browder and the hell he endured during three years in prison. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. He eventually committed suicide after his release from prison. His story can also be found in Ava DuVearney’s 13TH, her Netflix-commissioned documentary which masterfully ties together the legacy of Slavery to Mass Incarceration by exposing a loophole in the 13th amendment. This material will hopefully be nurtured properly by TWC who has produced compelling documentaries such as Fahrenheit 911, Sicko, and Thin Blue Line. Apparently Jay pitched the idea to TWC which was then presented to a willing and able Spike TV (which has 90 million subscriptions). Jay-Z and TWC are also slated to create the Richard Pryor biopic directed by Lee Daniels, which will be interesting to see develop to say the least.
The strategic task of finding the proper outlet is crucial as we know of multiple examples of minority-made projects throughout history that underperformed because of insufficient support from the studio or because of false projections and failures in targeting their audience. This is something that I hope won’t be a problem with the Disney, Marvel, Ryan Coogler triangle that is now devoted to delivering Black Panther. A perfect example of studio neglect to reference would be Warner Brothers’ hands off production process for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. A first hand account of this experience can be found in Lee’s By Any Mean’s Necessary:Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X. Controlling the various aspects of production and distribution (which is becoming more and more of a reality) are paramount.
Robert Glasper’s contributions to Miles Ahead, Nas’ production credits on The Land and The Get Down, Kendrick Lamar’s clear inclination of providing a steady stream of visuals, Flying Lotus’ new film division at Brainfeeder, and the multi-media bombardment that came with Frank Ocean’s last release show signs of potential crossover into the cinema-sphere. Popular culture contributors powered by creative control and a closeness with their supporters can lead to cinematic/content phenomenons in a matter of years if approached with the same consistency and intent as releasing albums.
As television continues to dominate along with more cable and streaming outlets springing up, a wider range of projects can find homes in a wider range of platforms. Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage, Issa Rae’s Insecure, and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None serve as examples of high quality TV content highlighting the nuances of Black and Brown life in the U.S. These shows aren’t assimilationist, nor highlighting a separate but equal narrative, but rather making it quite plain that Black and Brown life in America is often secular and sometimes surreal to the White gaze. The largely false progress endorsed by The Cosby Show and the equating of the Black American experience to that of the White American experience found in the likes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are soon to be relics. Second season locks, Image Awards wins, and Emmy wins are early signs of success for Rae, Coker, and Ansari.
Lately, networks such as WGN and The History Channel have benefited from a robust and inclusive approach to telling slave narratives. I hope this quells Hollywood’s sporadic urges to pump up feature length slavery films. As the diaspora creeps into the mainstream, casual retellings of our history will always have their place in the media landscape. WGN’s Underground quickly skyrocketed WGN’s primetime viewing average by 508% and their adult 18–49 viewership by 1005%. The show which is executive produced by John Legend, is WGN’s highest rated original-scripted series since their launch. If only The History Channel’s Roots wasn’t railed so hard by the internet and counter-programmed against the record breaking 2016 NBA Western Conference Finals and 2016 NBA Finals, it may have performed better than the 4.7 million viewers per-episode average it achieved over four consecutive days. Still, these historical programs show signs of really delving into the intricacies of Black history while also showing promise as Underground is picked up by WGN for a second season, along with a new series based on the triumphant and tragic story of Black Wall Street. John Legend is set to executive produce that series as well.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta on FX now holds the record for viewers of a basic cable comedy premiere. Ambiguous trailers showing what seemed to be the most relatable yet surreal representation of young black men and women ever, accurately set the tone for the rest of the show. The concept of deja vu, along with the back-from-commercial Atlanta promos — put specific elements on a pedestal that represent the dynamics of the city: barber shops, basketball courts, front porches are displayed existing on opposite planes; night and day in reality and in energy. This decision to utilize a surreal perspective personifies a truly unique framing of life mostly connected to the colonized mind which functions using duality; experiencing two things at once as Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois would attest. Yes, the concept of duality comes up across many cultures, but it isn’t as intrinsic as within Black and Brown communities tied to any of the boundless examples of colonialism.
Atlanta retained the audience they targeted and fulfilled all of their needs for narratives and commentary on what it means to be young and black in confusing times filled with blurred definitions spanning every aspect of humanity. This series seems to fill a void The Boondocks once filled: general critiques from inside the Black community from three central characters representing the range of Black male identity. Though Atlanta takes it a step further providing honest and often darkly-humorous depictions of race, sex, masculinity, mental health, the internet and communication, friendship, and societal expectations. The creation of Atlanta should serve as a shining example as how to create a staff, cast, and crew that will truly serve their audience the accurate and relatable representation that they seek. As a result, Atlanta’s Instagram account followers supersedes it’s fellow FX show accounts as well as the actual FX and FXX Instagram accounts by the tens of thousands. The show creators along with FX have received the most critical acclaim and overwhelming support of the viewing public since Louie or Man Seeking Woman. After taking home a Critics Choice Award and two Golden Globes already, it is safe to say that Atlanta is here to stay. Donald Glover’s personal rise will also be fun to follow as he gears up to play young Lando in the upcoming Han Solo offshoot film (shot by Howard graduate, Bradford Young), and as he gets an overall deal at FX (similar to Regina King’s new deal at ABC) to create as many projects that seem fit.
While the diversification and expansion of content outlets have created opportunities for independent creators along with marginalized voices, this occurrence has created echo chambers for consumers. Most apparent in news consumption, people tend to seek out information that aligns with their views anyways. Will this be the outcome for the power and value-shift in television? Will viewers only devote their time to networks which cater directly to them? In the emerging on-demand economy, the answer is probably yes. On-demand hints towards an era of some kind of people power; often understood as a means for people to have broader controls over more aspects of their lives. As a result, people may challenge themselves only if they want to. An All in the Family or even a Black-ish won’t have anywhere near the impact on broader society they were designed to achieve because it was the conventions and technological limits of the traditional network era that presented the environment for culture clashes and confrontations with opposing views. As long as cable programming continues to be over saturated with ads and themes of consumerism, and as long as the American middle class simultaneously continues to shrink, the masses will seek alternatives regarding the content they consume and how they do so. Old formulas will effectively be rendered useless. Our politics are already enduring this phenomenon.
The way the current visual entertainment paradigm is structured, favors super hero flicks, family films, and shock television. Given this media climate defined partially by echo chambers and new networks, it may be beneficial for new voices just now solidifying their space in the industry to embrace the idea of exclusivity and niche audiences just as Tyler, the Creator and Dame Dash have done with launching their own apps where their self-produced content is consolidated. There are only so many Black, Brown, woman-powered, and LGBT projects that can make it into the top twenty grossing films every year or provide boosts to network viewership stats given the current demographics. Am I suggesting to accept defeat and let Marvel and Buena Vista reign supreme in the box office and TV charts? Absolutely not. I’m suggesting to assess the current climate, take advantage of it by satisfying narrowcasted audiences, potentially luring in the open-minded along the way, then expanding the formula applied to those projects to create blockbuster moments as the country’s demographics shift.
The generations born into a Hip Hop dominated world, and an Internet-fueled society are ahead of the curve and have the potential to truly build a more prosperous future. It is a day that, against all odds, is full of attainable power. So consider pulling up Reasonable Doubt on Tidal, playing Vince Staples’, Q-Tip’s, or Run the Jewels’ radio channels on Beats 1 Radio, listen to Slauson Boy 2 or Coloring Book on your commute, and turn on some Nas, or Kendrick, or Noname, or whomever in between classes or shifts of work, and understand that it is a new day. We’ve been saying “who ever thought that Hip Hop would make it this far” for decades; yet here we are. Hip Hop culture is finally reaching a new stage where it is fundamentally changing our priorities in media and in our communities. The combination of realism, theory, and fantasy in Hip Hop music and related content have merged in modern times more than any other time. This is manifesting in concrete endeavors signifying proof of progress and proof of intent to continue growing. It seems fitting now to let American leaders on every level know what time it is.