I knew it the moment it happened. Had I written this a month ago, I would have found it difficult to pinpoint the time of death.
Maybe it was September 23, 2015, when ABC’s hit television show Black-ish decided to begin its new season with an episode examining the use of the n-word.
It might have been February 6th of this year, when Beyoncé dropped her surprise single “Formation,” then led a troupe of Black Panther Party costume-clad, afro-wearing dancers onto the biggest stage in the world to sing about her love for hot sauce and Negro noses during halftime of the Super Bowl.
Perhaps it was a week later when Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the Grammys and literally set the stage on fire with African dancers encircling a bonfire while chanting:
“You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people
Your plan is to terminate my culture.
We know that you’re evil…”
The term “Respectability Politics” has grown increasingly popular as of late. It’s when a marginalized group tries to police other members of its group to fit in with the mainstream (read: white) in order to gain acceptance, alleviate unease or demonstrate social value. When Ayesha Curry equated classiness with how much skin a woman’s clothes covered, she was adhering to respectability politics. Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech blaming the woes of Black people on cultural vernacular and how boys wore their pants was respectability politics. When When hip hop star The Rza insinuated that young Black men could avoid being harassed by police if they dressed better, he was playing respectability politics. At the heart of all respectability is the belief that the only way to gain respect is to assimilate and submit to the dominant and prevailing culture.
The world of Black entertainment has long been a pristine example of respectability. African American entertainers have always had to walk the tightrope between Blackness and mainstream America. For Black stars to make it to the major leagues of show business, they had to also be accepted by White America. Even those Black artists who became household names while not completely shedding their Blackness still had to tread lightly so not to destroy their mainstream appeal. It has always been clear: At the very top of the pyramid of the entertainment industry was the “crossover audience,” and for Black entertainers to cross the bridge from R&B to pop, from cable to network, from late-night to prime time—you could be Black, but only if it was inoffensive and milquetoast enough to fit into the rest of America’s definition of “acceptable.”
But something different has happened lately. Black entertainers don’t seem to want to play that game any more, and there is a growing spate of Black entertainment that isn’t afraid to be unapologetically Black. If it succeeds, might mean the death of respectability entertainment.
Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” was not a “conscious” hip hop album meant for the bottom of DJ crates and alternative hip hop playlists—it was the best hip hop album in years made by the best rapper in the game and it was ferociously Black. It was as if Biggie had read “Native Son” before making “Ready to Die.” It was a spitting, sneering and menacing jazz-infused culturally significant piece of art, but what was most shocking about it was that it was incredibly mainstream ( President Obama even loved it). What was revolutionary about “To Pimp a Butterfly” was that Kendrick wasn’t even talking to White America. It was a conversation for, about and between Black people, that he allowed the rest of the world to listen to if they sat quietly in the corner.
Between “Formation’s” unapologetic Blackness and Lemonade, Beyoncé transformed herself from a dance tune diva to a Black Girl Whisperer. Saturday Night Live’s hilarious skit about white women coming to grips with the realization that Beyoncé was Black was indicative of the uproar she caused with references to Black Lives Matter and Beckys with good hair. While the album was accessible to everyone, Beyoncé clearly set out to make an album that resonated with Black women while celebrating their Blackness.
If there was ever a personification of the death of respectability entertainment, it would be Fox’s hit show Empire—a network television show lead by two Black Academy Award nominees playing a smart, conniving, loving, backstabbing couple who use street smarts and ghetto fabulousness to inform their brilliant business acumen. Unlike the Cosby Show—which I always argued was a regular, white sitcom cast with Black characters—Empire exists because it is Black. It populates the screen with Black faces that only Black people know, and makes sure they sing and dance and fight and make love and talk and walk the way only Black people can.
This is mainstream TV, but it is for Black people—thus there is no need to conform to anything but Blackness. ABC’s Black-ish and NBC’s The Carmichael Show aren’t just traditional shows—they were created by, written by, and star Black people doing Black things without apologizing for or explaining them. If you are Black, you don’t have to watch Scandal to know who Olivia Pope is. White America was flabbergasted that NBC decided to do an all black version of the Wizard of Oz and wondered how we already knew the songs that the dreadlocked Cowardly Lion and the pop-locking, dabbing Tin Man were singing. And did Dorothy just call them her “squad?”
Despite the Oscars being so White, there might not have been a more mainstream movie that garnered more universal praise last year than Straight Outta Compton. The bleached-blonde, niche movies that no one saw may have racked up at the awards show, but none matched the importance or profit of F. Gary Gray’s masterpiece. At its heart, Straight Outta Compton was simply the story of a rock-n-roll band with themes of police brutality, loyalty and freedom of expression. But it wasn’t just Black, it was Jheri-curl Black. It was “Bye Felicia” Black. It was station-cops-at-the-movie-theaters-just-in-case Black. And it made a lot of money.
But then it happened.
It was during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
When Larry Wilmore told President Barack Obama, “We did it my ni**a!” it wasn’t just a host pulling off a controversial one liner that infuriated some and shocked others. It wasn’t just a guy chosen to fill Stephen Colbert’s iconic slot and the President, twice-chosen, to fill an iconic spot having a wink and a nod over their mutual Blackness. It was a metaphor what what all of Black entertainment has become: In the center of a vast ocean of bowties, powerful titles and white faces were two Black men. They were talking to each other, and they simply didn’t care who heard.
That’s when I knew respectability entertainment was dead.
In the end, perhaps Black entertainment has reached the point of self-sustainment—where reaching the pinnacle of show business is not dependent on catering or appealing to an outside audience. Maybe it’s just a trend. Maybe Hollywood and the small confederation of corporations who control the music industry are just stripping the mines from whence American popular culture has always come: