Back in the early 90s there was a short-lived yet immensely influential hip-hop act called Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, fronted by Michael Franti. The Heroes’ thing was commenting on social and racial injustice through music that was both brilliant and blistering, and one of the strongest moments on their debut album was a track called Famous and Dandy (Like Amos and Andy), which took aim at the lengths many black entertainers in the public eye had to go to in order to be accepted in popular culture. The point Franti was making was that even supposedly strong black role models in entertainment and sports were often engaging in a kind of modern-day minstrelsy by behaving in a way that aligned with what the white power structure had silently dictated and wouldn’t feel threatened by. The song was an admittedly savage take on racial politics and even now, despite the rise of hip-hop as a dominating force in pop culture in the ensuing 20 years, it packs a serious wallop and asks difficult questions about what’s expected of Black America and what it should expect of itself.
It’s no secret that the hip-hop nation of today is sometimes criticized as promoting an offensive stereotype of black men and women. Besides the usual idiotic outraged and condescending rants of people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, guys who can barely hide their racism and terror at the prospect of their waning cultural dominance, there have been a number of black celebrities who’ve voiced concern over what they see as a shirking of responsibility by some in the hip-hop game to be standard-bearers for Black America. One who’s held little back when it comes to being willing to scold his fellow African-Americans about their supposed bad behavior is CNN’s Don Lemon — who two months ago stated publicly that it was time for black people to pull their pants up, finish school, and stop having kids out of wedlock — and he’s received his fair share of equally powerful and caustic blowback for it. True, that wasn’t a direct shot at black entertainment but it can easily be argued that at least some of it is lamenting the effects of black entertainment.
You can say this about Lemon: he certainly doesn’t back down in the face of criticism, because this morning on the Tom Joyner radio show he once again seemed to broach the subject of “what’s wrong with Black America.” This time, though, he named black entertainment directly, saying that, unlike the preachers and activists of the past, the new leaders of the black community are people like Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. He argued that the torch has now been passed and it’s become their responsibility to be the role models the young people who idolize them may not necessarily demand but certainly need. What’s interesting is that, at least according to the Huffington Post — an outlet that’s admittedly taken the click-bait headline to stratospherically ridiculous heights — this is a controversial position.
It’s one thing to call Lemon’s willingness to wade into this particular swamp again an extension of an earlier controversy, but to call the statement itself controversial is somewhat unfair. The reason is that Lemon is absolutely right when he says that black entertainers — and sports stars — are the new leaders of their community, in the same way that they’re the leaders of most communities these days. Musicians and athletes have always been taste-makers and idols to the public — and for years now, thanks to the language and style of hip-hop, black musicians and athletes have become the most influential taste-makers and idols in the country. Sure, there are white people who don’t want to admit this, or who appropriate it and try to take credit, or who wish it weren’t true, but make no mistake: it is. To some extent it has been for decades, but it absolutely is now.
The question then becomes whether black entertainers, like all entertainers, really do have an unspoken commitment to be good influences on those they influence. Charles Barkley famously said two decades ago, in a Nike commercial that he personally wrote, “I am not a role model.” It started a debate about what was to be expected of those who gain fame and fortune particularly in the black community, what they owe the world, and whether that alleged debt should trump each person’s individuality. All these years later — with black culture so deservedly prevalent, often on its own terms, and a black man in the White House — the conversation is probably more important than ever. Not making accusations or issuing arrogant edicts from on high, but simply having the conversation.
Don Lemon can’t speak for all of Black America the same way the celebrities he implores to step up and be good role models can’t. He’s one guy offering an opinion and attempting to make what he at least believes is a positive impact. I personally can’t say that I’ve agreed with all of his opinions in the past or the way he’s voiced them. I would also never be so presumptuous as to pretend that I have some unique understanding of what it’s like to be black in America — I absolutely don’t — or that the black community is some monolithic entity rather than a group of individuals united by a common history and experience. But I’m not sure that beating up on someone who’s at least perhaps trying to use the forum he has positively in the name of effecting change from the inside out is a wise move, calling his comments controversial or implying in advance that they’ll be met with outrage.
Excessive preaching of personal responsibility to the point of making demands that everyone just straighten up and be more like one type of person can admittedly be obnoxious. But pointing out the obvious isn’t. And saying that black entertainers are the new leaders of black culture, the ones with the most influence and therefore the most potential to do good, is as obvious as you can get. Lemon doesn’t deserve to be vilified or even eyed with suspicion because he says so.
One of my favorite lines from the Disposable Heroes’ Famous and Dandy (Like Amos and Andy) speaks a universal truth about the dangers of articles of faith in political or cultural movements: “Even in the most radical of groups you will find that if you stray from the doctrine you’ll see hard times.” Don Lemon isn’t some apostate. He’s just one man with his own views of what he’d like to see within the larger community of which he’s a member and the future of which he cares about. What he isn’t is the enemy.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.