As a rabid consumer of art and culture, I wanted to share some work by black artists that have specifically had a profound effect on me personally through the years. I’m a white man in America, privileged in that I can never truly understand the struggle of so many in this country, but it’s through the continued work of so many talented people that the pervasive culture has been challenged and continues to be challenged . . .
I definitely didn’t see this in 1989 at age 13, but when I saw it as an older teen in the 90s, I was shook. My (incorrect) perception of NYC, and particularly the kinds of neighborhoods depicted here was a largely negative one. Spike Lee showed an ignorant America that urban communities are vibrant and beautiful, and also racked with underlying pain. His masterpiece was met with controversy, but no other work of art so perfectly captures the idea of how quickly perception can shift from feeling sorrow at a loss of a black life, then pivoting to outrage over loss of personal property (sound familiar?) I’m ashamed to admit that I certainly felt that way when I first saw the film, but that’s the power of a master at work, who knows exactly what drives human nature and how to illustrate both its beauty and ugliness . . .
In 1992, my relationship to hip hop was only just burgeoning, but Ice Cube’s ‘The Predator’ solidified my understanding of its raw power. Watching the LA riots on the news was appalling and scary to me at the time – I had zero understanding as to why there was such an extreme reaction – sure the Rodney King video was beyond disturbing, but I had no idea about the systemic problems, and I thought it was crazy that people would respond in this way. This album showcases the simmering rage and explosive reaction to injustice of a community with no voice, but still finds time for the day in the life bounce . . .
Kendrick Lamar tackled so many aspects of black culture and conflict in his 2015 masterpiece ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. It’s hard to explain the layers of excellence on display, from his lyrical and poetic bars, to the inspired production, to the thematic progression of the piece that tracks the journey of an artist grappling with his impact and the burden of the responsibility he feels for his community. He questions everything, stumbles, and grows into a flawed, and thereby HUMAN leader. There’s a reason entire college courses are spent on its analysis and why President Obama calls ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ one of his favorite songs . . .
As far as opening up an entire experience that to this point may have been filtered purposely for wider audiences, Coates’ brief, powerful, auto-biographical novel (it’s hard to put this work into a clear classification) from 2015 is a game changer. Structured as an almost stream of consciousness letter to his son, the author allows the reader into his intimate thoughts on the false constructs of class and race, highlighting the objectification of the ‘black body’ in American life. This is a visceral experience that pulls no punches, makes zero apologies, laying it all on the page, especially for someone with no bearing on the subject matter, to soak in, digest, and deeply empathize, but most importantly, to accept the criticism we all deserve . . .
I had heard the incarceration statistics, heard of ‘Birth of a Nation’, listened to activists, but never has a clearer, concise, undisputed presentation of the facts resonate like Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary from 2016. It’s nearly impossible to watch this film and not come away with a deeper understanding of the systemic racism and bias (at best) of American policy and law dating back hundreds of years, unless you just simply hand wave it all with a ‘fake news’, then I’ve got nothing for you . . .