The intersection of pop culture and race is some complicated stuff.
There came point at the D’Angelo concert last night and when the joy went out of the show for me. That’s saying something, because I spent a whole lot more money than I have to be there and have been looking forward to it for months.
It was the moment in the show where D’Angelo sang to the crowd, “Freddie’s dead but we ain’t. Let’s celebrate.” I get where the message came from. I see it as powerful, especially from the man whose last album was the soundtrack to this past season of #BlackLivesMatter and a love letter to Black activists.
The thing is, in the section where I was standing, we were maybe 25% visibly African American and I wanted to say to the guys grinding into my stomach with their butts, “HE’S NOT TALKING TO US! WE DON’T GET TO CELEBRATE THAT!” (And yeah, I get that part of the reason I didn’t want to celebrate was their butts grinding into my stomach. Anyone who saw my Facebook status update after the show knows that.)
Celebration is an act of rebellion. Everyone who has lived on the margins makes use of it. I love that. I love the power of laughter and joy and lovemaking in the face of abuse, oppression and death.
Heck, I just like a good party.
But this wasn’t my party.
It wasn’t my party because I do not live in constant fear of death at the hands of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me. I do not need to celebrate my survival. I don’t need to piggyback on his community’s party when I haven’t borne the same pain.
And yet, here we were, thousands of people, Black and White and Asian, and I understand he wasn’t expecting 2/3 of us to stop dancing, and I don’t know if the people around me knew which Freddie he was talking about to understand this wasn’t their party.
This stuff is blurry, our sharing of art and culture.
This might be on my mind because yesterday at lunch my friend Tami and I went to the Bengali sweet place in Fremont after church. As she stared at the Bollywood video above my head, she said, “all his backup dancers are white.”
I looked up at the screen and commented, “ah. Shah Rukh Khan. Bollywood’s biggest star. India loves its Muslim actors, but not Muslims in general.”
“That sounds familiar,” she responded, and I remembered the article in Saturday’s Chronicle about Warriors fans in San Francisco shouting racial epithets at Cavaliers as they boarded the bus from their hotel. We love our Black athletes and musicians and actors, but not our Black people in general. (And none of this is even addressing the anti-darkness culture of Bollywood that Tami was pointing out.)
A couple of months ago David Zirin spoke at an event at the Oakland Peace Center. Someone asked him why the NFL has nonprofit status. He connected some dots in a way that blew my mind.
In the 1950s, the NFL was considering expanding its teams. The senators from Louisiana said, “give us a team, and we’ll give you a nonprofit tax exemption.” The New Orleans saints were born and earned incredible amounts of money while pouring no tax dollars back into the city they called home and profited from.
What little money New Orleans had for infrastructure did not by and large get placed in places that would benefit the Black community (including shoring up the levees that eventually flooded the ninth ward.)
When the levees flooded, the only space for the flood survivors was the Superdome, which became dangerously uninhabitable within hours. The people that gave the Saints so much were no more cared for by the Saints than by their government. (And no, the name of the team does not escape me.)
I don’t have any conclusions except to say we borrow and exchange culture and art in this country and I love that. And yet there is a difference between borrowing and appropriating, and yet another difference between borrowing and exploiting. And if we miss the first line, it might make it even easier to miss the second one.
i don’t have any answers. I hope the next generation of racial justice warriors will, especially the many who were conceived last night thanks to D’Angelo’s mood setting music. Black Messiah may have been a love letter to Black activists, but I think it worked on the whole crowd. Because some kinds of celebrating ARE universal.