How Mo On Netflix Bridges Houston’s Black Community With Palestinian Solidarity
Originally published for Refinery29 Unbothered on September 26th 2022.
To understand what an accomplishment Netflix’s buzzy new series Mois, you must first recognize that it wasn’t all that long ago where the idea of humanizing Palestinian content of any sort in Western media was seen as verboten. And the stories of refugees were relegated to exploited tragedies instead of humanized depictions. Notably, in 2018, professor and author Marc Lamont Hill was fired from his CNN contract for delivering remarks at the United Nations where encouraged nations to protest Israel until there is “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a (seemingly innocuous) statement that sparked furor from multiple groups accusing Hill of promoting hate and anti-Semitism. Fast forward four years, and not only is a Palestinian story gracing the screens of everyone with a Netflix subscription, but it is also framed within a love letter to Black Houston culture and the community that shaped Palestinian-American comedian,star and creator Mohammed Amer. Mo is a sharp and humorous story that leans into the farce of the American dream as much as it examines the tragedy of American imperialism, with twists and turns more thrilling and unexpected than a ride at the Houston Funplex.Continue reading
Flatbush residents cautiously optimistic about West Indian Day parade’s return after two-year hiatus
Originally published for Gothamist/WNYC on September 2nd, 2022.
The upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the first in-person West Indian Day parade in three years, and longtime residents of Little Caribbean in Flatbush and neighboring Crown Heights find themselves facing a drastically different Brooklyn than the one they have come to call home.
Rapid gentrification has shifted the natural rhythm of a bustling working-class community in Flatbush and its slow buildup into parade season. The parade is an export of Caribbean carnival culture that has been preserved by their multigenerational immigrant communities since the early 1900s, and ultimately integrated into an indelible part of Brooklyn’s Black infrastructure. What was once a universally anticipated culmination of a magical Brooklyn summer in the community is now the source of ongoing anxiety. Noise complaints have been on the rise in the last decade and violent incidents on Labor Day tend to lead stories about the weekend’s events, which residents say stigmatizes the long-standing celebrations and dampens excitement around one of the biggest parades in the city.Continue reading
Megan Thee Stallion resets her terms with ‘Traumazine’
Originally published on August 19th 2022 for NPR Music.
Given where she’s been lately, it should come as no surprise that Megan Thee Stallion has chosen to dispense with pleasantries on her new album. The ferocity of Traumazine begins with its cover, which shows her visage in an emotive triplicate reminiscent of Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound of Greek mythology. In Dante’s Inferno, Cerberus resides in the Third Circle of Hell with the gluttons, where he “rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.” As an executioner, Megan is more precise. On the Rico Nasty collaboration “Scary,” she renders both her lyrical and physical form as a foreboding omen for her detractors: “Say my name like Candyman, and bitch, you know I’m there / These hoes wish they saw me when they lookin’ in the mirror.”
Megan is also used to being the life of every party. Her bawdy, unabashed 5’10” presence quickly won her devoted followers, and as her star rose she engaged in rowdy revelry with these loyal supporters at famed roving spaces called “Hottie Parties.” She was so eager to please that base — the fans who helped elevate the carnal slow-burn “Big Ole Freak,” from her 2018 EP Tina Snow, into her first bona fide hit — that she continued to perform as the good-time gal they had come to love even as she entered what would be the most traumatizing years of her life. Where her debut studio album, 2020’s Good News, clanged against the public awareness of that turmoil, Traumazine leans into it: making space for ruminations and grief, managing the swirling emotions produced by years of acrimony and cathartically letting them rise to the surface. In reaching for a more confessional mode, she reaffirms her commitment to talking her talk.Continue reading
The Misrepresentations of Wendy Williams’ Undeniable Legacy
Originally published for VICE on August 18th, 2022.
Between the rise of the #FreeBritney movement and the plight of Star Trek’s recently departed Nichelle Nichols, the last two years have shined a spotlight on the complicated nature of conservatorships that shockingly often lacks oversight, given the level of power afforded. (A conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which an individual or group of people are given the authority to manage the welfare and finances of someone who is seen as unfit to care for themselves.)
After revelations about Britney Spears’ struggles in her 13-year conservatorship, the media industry and general public responded with outrage and reflection about their complicity. On a rundown of “Hot Topics” during a June 24, 2021 taping of The Wendy Williams Show, the eponymous host was discussing the disclosures that had come out of Britney Spears’ public testimony to the Los Angeles Court on her conservatorship. “The rehab that they forced her into,” Williams remarked, “the paparazzi was there every day.” Her tenor then subtly changes, a well-known calling card for longtime fans of her daytime program who are used to her abrupt tonal pivots. “How dare you, Mr. Spears. You had me fooled. And you, too. Mrs. Spears. Death, to all of them.”
The growing awareness of exploitative conservatorships seemed to indicate that their hold on troubled female stars would be under harsher scrutiny. But the uproar seems to have dissipated in the case of Wendy Williams, who was put under financial guardianship by Wells Fargo earlier this year. Compared to the frenzied focus on Williams’ personal life just a few years ago when her marriage dissolved, the response was muted in the mainstream. Where was the cavalry for one of the biggest names in daytime TV and radio history?Continue reading
The Real Housewives of Dubai’s Chanel Ayan Is Only Representing Herself
Originally published for Vulture on August 18th, 2022.
With her extravagant looks and numerous malapropisms, Chanel Ayan has quickly established herself as the breakout star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Dubai. A model, wife, and mother to a teenage boy, the East African beauty stormed onto the scene of Bravo’s first international Real Housewives franchise with the tagline “They don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, they hate me because they are basic.” With an assist from Jamaican American designer and castmate Lesa Milan, Ayan has made moments out of events as innocuous as a moonlit group dinner and gatherings as fabulous as Dubai Fashion Week, occasionally ruffling the feathers of her castmates in the process.
While her taste for couture and almost childlike whimsy may be what immediately appeals to the sartorially inclined, Ayan’s story is more than an accounting of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is a true rags-to-riches story: a young girl of Somali and Ethiopian descent raised in Malaba, Kenya, who survived a violent father and defied expectations of what her life was expected to be. From enduring genital mutilation as a child to choosing to marry for love instead of an arranged marriage, Ayan’s story is one of survival and defiance, a coalescence of the parts of her culture that she holds dear and the new family that she has built for herself.
When Vulture sat down for a one-on-one with Ayan at the Baccarat Hotel, she revealed that her trip to New York for the first Dubai reunion had been a bit of a hassle because she lost her American passport and its replacement was delayed, which would extend her stay. What resulted was a whirlwind tour of the Bravo-verse in the tristate area, culminating in a guest appearance at Teresa Giudice’s wedding.Continue reading
On ‘Renaissance’ Beyoncé is at her curatorial best
Originally published for Andscape on August 11, 2022
To call Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, just a “dance record” would be akin to calling Celine Dion a fairly popular singer. Across 16 tracks, Beyoncé not only pays homage to a soundscape borne from Chicago’s and Detroit’s queer communities (and her Uncle Jonny who introduced her to that world), she also incorporates references from a bevy of Black musical subgenres and subcultures, showcasing one of her most underrated musical skills: archiving and curation.
Take the opening track, “I’m That Girl,” for example. Beyoncé opens the song with the same type of stacked harmonies she perfected during her Destiny’s Child era, employing the airy vocal register she first used in 2013’s “Mine.” Toward the end of the song, a looped lyric from Princess Loko (“B— please, motherf—ers ain’t stopping me“) is set atop a sample of Tommy Wright III’s “Still Pimpin.” Wright’s slow bassline is then layered with a mild house beat that follows a dembow riddim used in reggaeton music, courtesy of Dominican producer Kelman Duran. “You know, all these songs sound good, ’cause I’m on that, ho,” Beyoncé boasts during the opener, later singing about knocking Basquiats off the wall.
A lot has changed since Beyonce’s last project, The Lion King: The Gift dropped in the summer of 2019. House music has been in a resurgence of its own recently. The popularity of DJs such as Kaytranada, the proliferation of Philadelphia and New Jersey club artists on TikTok, and the rise of South African amapiano’s popularity in the United States were a harbinger for the current explosion. We’ve been in a pandemic for over two years, anxious for the day that COVID-19 will finally be over and allow us to experience music the way artists intended. Renaissance speaks to those who are striving for that moment. It captures our desires, transforming them into an album that’s a heady and densely layered mix of house music and club beats intermingled with au courant trends and homages to Black queer creativity. The album is also a reminder of the power and release that can be found among like-minded people in the brief escape of a booming sound system and a dance floor.Continue reading
Fictions of History
Originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Baffler.
THE WRITER AND SCHOLAR Saidiya Hartman opens her 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts” with an admission about the challenge she’s taken on: to give life to the story of the “Black Venus,” the “emblematic figure of the enslaved woman in the Atlantic world,” present in the archives in various forms, but never as a full person. “I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive. I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives on the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration,” Hartman writes. “Listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.”
Hartman carefully details the process of archival discovery: while she has encountered her two Black Venuses in a legal indictment against a slave ship captain, many others can be found in ledgers, overseers’ journals, or in a traveler’s account of brothels. Circumstances notwithstanding, the end result is the same—an unnamed Black woman, deprived of the ability to tell her story, reduced by a white man to a commodity or a tawdry sexual exploit. Aiming to engage in a reparative exercise, Hartman asks: “How does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?”
She continues: “Can we, as [M.] NourbeSe Philip suggests, ‘conjur[e] something new from the absence of Africans as humans that is at the heart of the text’? And if so, what are the lineaments of this new narrative? Put differently, how does one rewrite the chronicle of a death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counter-history of the human, as the practice of freedom?” Hartman’s goals surpassed the disciplinary bounds of history, which would limit her to the scarce documented facts. Her approach, which she termed “critical fabulation,” is more delicate and subtle—“a history written with and against the archive”—a speculative space exceeding “fictions of history.” With her methodology, she would add dimension and heft to the precarious archives.Continue reading
DESUS AND MERO REPRESENTED THE NEW YORK THAT MAINSTREAM MEDIA IGNORED
Originally published for Mic on July 20, 2022.
There’s a natural irreverence that evolves out of surviving the brutality of a city that seems exceedingly determined to make it clear that your presence is unwelcome, no matter what cultural contributions or community you may have established; it sharpens you like steel, donning an “us-against-the-world” mentality like armor. This is the ecosystem that much of the Bronx has existed in — dismissed not just by clueless tourists, but within NYC’s five boroughs, by people who are quick to use the northernmost region of the city as a quick punchline. It’s a sensitive but oft-retread spot for many of us who claim Uptown as our stomping grounds, and a unifying source of the defiance that rounds out our speech much more than any specific accent, lingo, or generation.
It’s nestled within this tension that much of the most iconic exports — and occasionally, overdone tropes and phraseology — would make their way from the Bronx to the greater mainstream. While the rest of the city was ready to dismiss the Bronx as a blight, a counterculture we now know as hip-hop was born. And in a time when the faces of NY media — including street culture reporting — were overwhelmingly white and dominated by people who had moved here and weren’t molded by the city, Desus & Mero stepped into the scene. Two Black boys from the Bronx were somehow let in the back door, ending up at Showtime, where they ended their eponymous late-night comedy show this week after four seasons. Their brilliance showcased what we’ve all long known — that the cultural lifeblood of this city is maintained by Black and brown communities who are rarely given opportunities to thrive or meaningfully represent their experiences, on or off camera.Continue reading
NETFLIX’S AFROBEATS DOCUSERIES SHOWS THE GENRE OUTSIDE OF THE AMERICAN LENS
Originally published in Mic on July 13th, 2022.
The narrative of Afrobeats has often been at the mercy of its most preeminent target audience: the perceived holy grail of crossing over to the United States mainstream music market, its corresponding consumers, and labels who can offer global infrastructure support. It’s an extractive dynamic between a global power that seeks to be the fulcrum of pop culture, and international artists who feel that their best chance at success lies in seeking Western approval. In service of this pipeline to the American music industry’s colonial plantation model, many stories have gotten smudged, erased, or reduced to urban legend.
In Netflix’s new acquisition, Afrobeats: the Backstory — directed by filmmaker, manager, and lawyer Ayo Shonaiya — the legacy of the booming music industry on the African continent gets a lengthy and industrious reframing through the lens of its pioneers and change agents, who contextualize the recent explosion of Afrobeats as less of a phenomenon and marketing push and more of a decades-long labor of love. The series curates an extensive archive of legends past and present, as well as the harbingers of Afrobeats’ evolution to chart out the intercontinental journey of West African popular music from the turn of the century to present-day. This provides time to clarify commonly held misconceptions and introduce nuanced sonic relationships that have been established, both consciously and subconsciously, throughout the diaspora as West Africa has risen to the forefront of the global market.Continue reading
WHO DOES BURNA BOY WANT TO BE?
Originally published in Mic on July 11th, 2022.
Love, Damini opens with the vocal harmonies of the reverent South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gently murmuring, “This is my story.” Burna Boy certainly has a phenomenal tale to share: The Nigerian artist’s rise has been meteoric in the three years since releasing the sonic triumph that was his fourth studio album, African Giant, in July 2019. The prince of Port Harcourt followed the album’s critical acclaim with multiple BET awards and a World Music Grammy for his subsequent record, Twice As Tall, which was boosted by a (hotly-debated) executive production assist from P. Diddy. The titanic collaborations continued: A feature on South African artist Master KG’s “Jerusalema” with a stunning verse in Zulu took over the summer of 2020, and the self-declared father of Afro-fusion was the only artist to have a solo track on Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack album. His guest spots were elevated by a seemingly endless string of shows and a world tour, including an unprecedented and transcendent night of magic at Madison Square Garden as the mecca’s first Nigerian headliner.
Burna Boy promised that his sixth album — titled after his birth name, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, and arriving on the heels of his 31st birthday — would be his most personal. It would presumably be a reflection on Burna’s momentous journey, replete with all the musical flourishes that have earned him his global reach and fanbase. True to his word, the record does have a more intimate touch, but it falls short of the cohesion one would expect from an artist at such a transformative point in their career; poor sequencing, shoddy skits, and unambitious choices belabor Love, Damini’s 19-track runtime.Continue reading