How do we stop black grief from becoming a commodity?

Art should make us think critically and give its artists the opportunity to share their experiences, but where do we draw the line?

June 5, 2018

When Pusha T dropped his vicious Drake diss track “The Story of Adion“, amidst the ego-driven bravado of their exchange, the public airing of dirty laundry and line-crossing bars, what caught everyone’s attention was the featured image of the song’s subject. Taken in 2007, the image depicted the Toronto rapper in Jim Crow-era Blackface. While Drake has since addressed (and not apologized for) the image, mentioning that he intended to highlight prevalence of Black actors being stereotyped and type casted, at its core the image brought a loaded reference of a traumatic cultural period to an audience who might not fully grasp its complexity. In the context of battle rap, sure, the image was a sucker punch to the gut, but its usage also begs the question, who exactly did the image intend to shock.

PhD student and cultural commentator, Huda Hassan, writes, “The threat to black existence and black life has never ended, thus black mourning hasn’t ended; and so long as the conditions remain that ensure black people will die for or because of their blackness, so too will black suffering.” This is Black grief and in more and more instances, our grief has been upended into commodifiable content. As an outpour of creations emerge—documentaries, music videos, songs, tweets— from both Black and non-Black content creators, I’ve always been interested in knowing not only who the intended audience is, but who is actually consuming this work. I’ve wondered why the pain inflicted on our global community is often propelled into the public forum, becoming a free-for-all catalyst for creativity.

What are we to do with Black grief? It is the headlines that populate our feeds, it is the viral videos that display our injustices, it is the retweets and shares and likes and threads and all the posts that explain and re-explain our humanity. The answer is so painfully obvious: we’re to heal from it. We are to unplug, talk to our loved ones, get therapy or find alternative means of professional help, but so much happens in a day and in a week, and healing seems to exist in a fleeting distant.

A few weeks ago hip hop became the centre of attention when Kanye West made disparaging comments in the form of tweets about “free thinking” in addition to publicly aligning himself with folks who have said notoriously awful things about Black people, our history and how to cope from intergenerational trauma. What’s worse is while the public wrestled with their feelings of confusion and hurt from his actions, other Black artists—many of whom are men—rallied behind him to show their support. Within days, an almost two hour interview between West and Breakfast Club host, Charlamagne Tha God was produced and made available to watch where the artist was seen explaining himself (or attempting to) and even had his statements challenged by Charlamagne.

I had to sit with myself for a minute and ask, “Who were those tweets made for? What conversations were supposed to ensue thereafter?” By way of his tweets, his insistence on wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and subsequent commentary, under the guise of love, West made himself an alt-right darling and was dubbed “brilliant” and “genius.” Yes, the artist has every right to parallel his own beliefs with a political ideology that reflects his school of thought (whatever that is), but I can’t help but think that how he’s arrived at his conclusions, and very publicly so, is at the expense of Black grief.

In all of what he’s done where—claiming slavery was a choice (and later being confronted by TMZ’s Van Lathan), calling Donald Trump his “brother” (I do not know any, single person who would even have the desire to openly admitting being brotherly with someone as morally bankrupt as Trump) and other ways he’s given voices of the alt-right a platform—he has (significantly) contributed to using Black greif, and the people whose thoughts threaten our lives and livelihoods, for his own personal gain driven by his obsession with attention and celebrity. He even unapologetically addresses the incident on “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Ghost Town”, two tracks off his newly released album, Ye, that implies that he could have said much worse.

Our intra-community ills are made points of conversation in the public forum and no one or institution is being accountable for the ills imposed on our community.

Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. There have been many people who have seen the publicity that can be garnered when there’s an international digital outcry against injustices made on our community. This April, director Lauren Brownson premiered her made-for-Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide. The doc was a disturbing look into how Dolezal, a white woman who feigned and benefitted from Blackness and Black woman identity, navigated her life post-KXLY expose. To be frank, the documentary was both poorly executed and spent more time trying to humanize someone who is obviously (and incorrectly) trying to recover from a traumatic childhood and less time critiquing—save for the last few movements of the film—how her act co-opts and trivializes Blackness and specifically Black womanhood.

Again, who was this documentary made for and why does it have to be predicated on the global Black community? It certainly wasn’t made for Black folks who’d already decided that her narrative was one that need not receive any further attention. The probability of the doc being made to elicit empathy for Dolezal is a likely, albeit unwarranted, reason, but from what demographic?

Days after West’s antics became the subject of conversation, the video for Childish Gambino’s new single, “This is America” premiered. The video was intentionally chaotic featuring Black children dancing in the foreground of police chases, shootings and massacres of Black folks that immediately made headlines. It drew on several references including the Jim Crow caricature, as Donald Glover likened his animated facial features and expressions while delivering bars. An immediate observation revealed that the video seemingly suggested that Black folks are the architects of their own demise, blinded by the latest viral dance moves despite the fact that all of the violent acts represented were reflective of white individuals motivated by white supremacy ideology. In “This is America,” their identities were nowhere to be found.

The video was polarizing. People rightfully critiqued it while others praised it for its aptness. Surprisingly, the visual got its biggest approval from a largely white audience. A few things factor into this: until recently, his most loyal fans were largely white college kids. While his self-directed and produced, hella Black, F/X television series, Atlanta, attracted a significantly larger black audience, it doesn’t excuse his spotty articulation of race in the past. The artist has had problems with his fetishization of Asian women, his representation of Black women in his creations, making a career off being the token Black guy and the strange part of a 2012 stand up show where he shared he, “came harder than [he’d] ever come…before” when an Armenian woman told him to, “Fuck me harder with that N-word dick.” Despite Atlanta becoming a runaway hit, it also raised questions by critics who questioned was an artist like Glover justified for producing it.

Perhaps there’s no resolve, yet. Perhaps we take situations as they come and deal with it the best way we know how: we create or find digital communities, we make light of our grievances and connect with other members of the Black diaspora through memes or hashtags like #IfSlaveryWasAChoice (a response to West’s comments on TMZ that slavery was a choice), we create conversations, we take a digital hiatus, we share thoughts and ideas. But it seems like the conversations that are being had often include the wrong people.

How do we make the concerns and experiences of our communities seen and heard without inflicting further violence on ourselves and our collective psyche?

Our intra-community ills are made points of conversation in the public forum and no one or institution is being accountable for the ills imposed on our community. And what about when our grief is leveraged by other Black people? In the midst of everything that was happening with West and Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, actor and Atlanta co-star, stated in a now-deleted tweet that if you wanted to “test your parents(sic) ignorance level” to “bring home a person of a different ethnic background. Specifically a Black woman”. Hypothetical or not, people shouldn’t be subjected to be experiments, especially given the current social climate regarding race relations and given the mysogenoir that permeates it.

Before entering a public spat with Drake, Pusha T’s album artwork for his album Daytona uses a $85,000 licensed photo (paid for by Kanye West) of drug paraphernalia in a washroom inside late singer, Whitney Houston’s, Atlanta home in 2006. Given the controversy surrounding Houston’s death, the multiple film productions that have already and have been reported to take place about her life, as well as new information that has since been made public knowledge by way of the 2017 documentary on the artist, Can I Be Me?, I ask again: what are we to do with Black grief and who is this art being made for?

Art should make us uncomfortable. It should make us think critically and give its artists the opportunity to share their experiences on how we live, but where do we draw the line? A thread began to circulate as West continued to post more content onto Twitter that posited that his latest string of actions being performance art. West has been lauded as a creative genius and innovator and it’s not like he’s ever shied away from making provocative, controversial statements in the past, but under the guise of “art,” it seems like it functions as a means to evade accountability and wreak havoc as one pleases, despite the casualties.

Does art need to have casualties for it to attain one of its many transformative possibilities? How do we make the concerns and experiences of our communities seen and heard without inflicting further violence on ourselves and our collective psyche? All of these factors are worth interrogating, especially when they spread and manifest within a digital landscape where clicks are currency and, these days, the only thing that matters.

It’s not a foreign concept that our grief be turned into art that transcends boundaries, space and time. The cultural production of Black people is often borne from a state of disenfranchisement and making art despite our conditions, but the difference between then and now is that what was once experienced and enjoyed within our insular community is now being thrusted into the public domain, packaged, marketed and commodified for global consumption. What are we to do with Black grief? Who knows. We can heal from it, we can learn from it but we shouldn’t commodify it.

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