For those thrilled at Kanye West gearing up for the US presidency 2020, there must be some corner of your heart reserved for rap. And why not—if it is Ludacris’ Move B—ch on the Manhattan Bridge, it is Gambino and Lamar rolling on the Spotify charts. People are rediscovering powerful rap anthems following the gruesome police killing of 46-year old Black man George Floyd on 25 May.

Two tracks in particular, describing the Black American experience— This is America by Childish Gambino (2018) and Kendrick Lamar’s Alright (2015) are witnessing phenomenal response at the moment. Besides these, pop star Beyonce is all set to release Disney’s new visual album titled “Black is King” on 30 July. The trailer has already gone viral—and as a celebration of Black culture, artists like Gambino, Lamar, Pharrell, 070 Shake, Tierra Whack, Jay-Z and others feature in it.

So far the entire buzz evokes hope including the controversial “white celebrities making noise” under #BlackLivesMatter. Contrary to the belief that all social media energies go wasted, the churning of voice or music, however inadequate, is way better than cold, nasty silence.

A scene from the video of ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino | Photo: YouTube screengrab

Fight the Power

Racial sensitivity in terms of music has often remained a disputed issue traversing not just technical aspects (like lyrics or instruments) but also style and video graphics. The history of genres like rap might date back prior to the 1970s, but what began as an underground protest movement was statistically listed as 2018’s most popular genre of music in the United States — making it mainstream like never before.

There are also multiple sub-genres of rap. Each carries its own flavour – gangsta, trap, go-go, chopped and screwed, breakbeat and so on. And not all of this is just lyrics and beats, but iconic experiments with fashion too.

Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground

A young nigga got it bad’cause I’m brown

And not the other color so police think

They have the authority to kill a minority

[Fuck tha police, N.W.A. (1988)]

The contribution of the mid-1980s West Coast rappers, Too Short, N.W.A., and others grooving with DJ-sounds must be mentioned here. They spoke of impoverished areas, narcotics and the stereotypes associated with West Coast residents. Presently, N.W.A.’s 1988 F– tha Police is a rage on YouTube. A big quotient of their popularity then was the street wear and monochromatic look and today, those are back in vogue. 

This might give one the impression of rap becoming a socially ‘acceptable’/ ‘conscious’ form but that term itself is problematic. Andre Gee’s essay “All Rap music is political” argues that there are flaws to the elitist notion of looking at rap as a “socially conscious” construct. Offering a re-evaluation of the way Blackness must be understood in totality, he states, “The white gaze shouldn’t frame our perception of Black music’s “political” value.”

Gee’s analysis is very useful because it lets us consider the role of celebrity activism in communicating that very “value” to the masses.

Think Billie Eilish acknowledging her style icons Tyler the Creator and Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino). It immediately directs a large crowd of teenagers towards rap music and its aesthetic components. Why does Eilish sport fluorescent shorts, oversize hoodies and swagger style box coats– most of which are indeed “the rap gear” when her music is clearly not about ‘Blackness’? She was also in the headlines for making some sweeping statements about rap music and authenticity earlier this year.

Billie Eilish at the 2019 Pukkelpop Music Festival, Kiewit, Hasselt, Belgium, 18 August 2019 | Photo: Lars Crommenlinck, WC

You just a Black Man in this world

This leads us to Gambino, American actor, director and musician. His track This is America achieves a distinct sartorial effect by defying upper body clothing. Directed by Hiro Murai, Gambino’s juxtapositions in this video like that of shooting the choir and lighting a joint afterwards makes for potent commentary on gun brutality in America. The rhythm in his performance also tells us how despite the “disturbing” background—life goes on, fast, and in ruthless nonchalance.

This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)

Don’t catch you slippin’ now (ayy)

Look at how I’m livin’ now

Police be trippin’ now (woo)

Reflecting on the perils and challenges of making ingenious  black art in a white supremacist system, Gambino had said, “Authenticity is the journey of figuring out who you are through what you make.”

Considering his opinion today, it is now difficult to discern the authenticity of new celebrity activism. Post Floyd’s killing, a closer scrutiny tells us that the pressure of being “politically correct” (again, under a ‘white gaze’) can blur the line between genuine and non-genuine celebrity voices. Which is which, really?

For example, was Glee’s Heather Morris camera-facing two-minute dance (dedicated to late George Floyd) an authentic performance? Will we ever know—taking into account how easy it is, now, to apologise and delete your Twitter or Instagram stories?

 (Black) square peg in a round hole

Recently, pop star Taylor Swift got slammed for tweeting, “Racial injustice has been ingrained deeply into local and state governments, and changes MUST be made there”.

Someone pointed, “Posting a black square with thirteen hearts is simply not enough. You’ve a gigantic platform. There’s more to be done”. The black square as profile pictures intended to show solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. Here, the removal of individual faces for a community cause signalled a gesture of awareness for the Black cause. While some were pleased with this move, others vehemently opposed it for being symbolically reductive.

Pop singer Selena Gomez’s initiative of educating people about #BlackLivesMatter through her 181 million follower Instagram account was also criticised. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame drew flake while she spoke on racial inequality and was called out. Her  “performative activism” was doing more harm than good, many had remarked.

View this post on Instagram

“What led to this racial crisis?” ⠀ ⠀ History shows us that culture—images, films, music, literature—not law alone, has led to this racial crisis and our focus on police violence. Culture is a powerful tool. It creates narratives that can honor human life or denigrate it.⠀ ⠀ Law alone did not result in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Travyon Martin, or any of the other unnamed lives lost due to racial terror. Law combined with culture shapes our social narratives. It can justify biases and stereotypes with deadly consequences. ⠀ ⠀ But this is also the good news. It means that we all have a role to play by how we shape, make, and engage with the culture around us. ⠀ ⠀ This is a 1 day Instagram class called, “How to See in a Racial Crisis.” You will get a new set of tools in the posts and stories through resources and artists to follow. Our 4 topics:⠀ ⠀ 1) Racial Terror as Culture (What is the connection between the history of lynching and the racial violence we are witnessing today?)⠀ ⠀ 2) Racial Bias in Media, Photography, and Tech (We’ll discuss how stereotypes and counternarratives are reinforced by culture)⠀ ⠀ 3) The Cultural Tie between Policing and Slavery (How did slave patrols, the surveillance of black bodies via the Fugitive Slave Act, and convict leasing help develop our police force?) ⠀ ⠀ 4) The Power of the Public Square (What does it mean to still have Confederate monuments in public?)⠀ ⠀ These are 4 arenas of our cultural battleground: Media, Images, Public Symbols, and Spectacles. Racial terror has impacted them all.⠀ ⠀ How we choose to see each day can be a form of daily activism. Understanding this is the mission of the @visionandjustice project. ⠀ ⠀ Please post in the comments and I’ll engage with as many of your questions as I can! I’m saluting Selena Gomez for turning over her platform for the purpose of education and justice for all. Thank you! Special thanks to, @fordfoundation, Whiting Foundation, Lambent Foundation, @hutchinscenter, @americanrep, @harvardartmuseums, @aperturefnd, my colleagues, students, and many more for their support. Please be well and safe!⠀ ⠀ — @sarahelizabethlewis1

A post shared by Selena Gomez (@selenagomez) on

Meanwhile, Billie Eilish denounced the #AllLivesMatter. She also mentioned she’d “lose her f—— mind” if another white person reiterated that hashtag. Once again, were these celebrities trying hard to directly step into the shoes of those who face the atrocity of custodial tortures and police street brutality? Is this solidarity a good start or are we very late already for these ‘crumbs’?

I am not saying that events leading up to white people offering solidarity to #BlackLivesMatter is not heartening. But, the popular war cry “do your bit” runs the risk of being overdone. For celebrities, this very “bit” is always “enough” and so, once the wave fades away, these bits end up into eventual tokenism. Or worse, become de facto faces of branding.

Black Parade 

In the midst of the lockdown and the atrocious aftermath of Floyd’s death, I too am waiting for Beyonce’s upcoming Disney release. The 70-second trailer shows few images relatable to the Black diasporic imagination primarily through couture experiments. The camera emphasises the braids, the plaits, the facial painting, the lions and so on.

It reminded me of the 2015 controversy around Taylor Swift’s video of Wildest Dreams, whose (unspecified) Africa shoot didn’t have any Black people. 

The comments section of both these videos had one domineering argument about the exoticisation of the continent: “It is all set in the past”. Swift, by not paying any attention, has robbed African cultures of their visual multitude while Beyoncé by paying too much attention has (by the looks of the trailer) succumbed to an western visual conjuring of Black lives.

In which case, maybe neither (not even Eilish) is appropriating from the Black tradition, but drawing selective elements from an already available global simulacra of ‘Blackness’. 

One must investigate why this is so. Because if celebrity activism has to speak for art and as art, it has to take note of the unsettled aspects of what we mean by Blackness. Be it rapping, stylised performances or any cultural activism surrounding #BlackLivesMatter. Increasingly these days, what hinders the sprouting of diversity is not just appropriation but the artifice of appropriation.

And the latter is such a saleable visual that we can’t even differentiate anymore.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. She has written for The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, The Indian Express, OPEN, Scroll, Mint Lounge, The Wire, Himal Southasian and others. Rini tweets @barman_rini.

Featured image (from left to right): Childish Gambino, Billy Eilish, Selena Gomez