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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pulled From the Archives – An Interview with Jenifer Lewis

Originally published in my newsletter, Shamira explains it all, on July 8th, 2022.


Next Friday, July 15th — also known as Jackie Washington Day — the inimitable Jenifer Lewis will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The “Mother of Black Hollywood” has had a 4-decade long career on stage and screen, remaining as vibrant and invigorating in present-day as the first mark she ever hit on Julianne Boyd’s Eubie! Most refreshingly, she is remarkably open and forthright — a rarity in Hollywood, particularly for a thespian of her stature.

I had the opportunity to interview Lewis and grab some pearls of wisdom she had gleaned over the course of her iconic life and career nearly four and a half years ago, while she was in the midst of promoting her memoir (she is now promoting her upcoming book, Walking in My Joyexpected to be out on August 30th).

A different version of this transcript had been put together for a publication but killed due to shifting editorial priorities. I kept the audio and hadn’t revisited it for a while, but as I had combed back, I had realized that in our conversation, she had elaborated on the very title that she is using for her newest offering, which was an uncanny full-circle moment I wanted to share with anyone who cared to read.

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‘Flatbush Misdemeanors’ shows the beauty of the Brooklyn neighborhood

Originally published in Andscape on June 23rd, 2022.


Flatbush, Brooklyn, is a magical place. From the sound of rowdy teenagers screaming for the back door of the B41 bus to be opened to the scents of bake and saltfish wafting from Caribbean food shops. But that magic has been hard to capture on-screen. Then, Showtime emerged with a series that shows us how it’s done.

Created by and starring Kevin Iso and Dan Perlman, Flatbush Misdemeanors (airing now on Showtime) is a dark comedy that has arguably done the best job at capturing working-class life in New York City since HBO’s How to Make It in America wrapped a decade ago.

“It’s people trying their best — and they’re all trying — but everyone’s kind of consistently falling short,” Perlman, who portrays a foundering high school teacher with a Xanax dependency, told Andscape.

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ELLA MAI IS TRYING TO INJECT THE ROMANCE BACK INTO R&B

Originally published in Mic on May 12th, 2022.


In 2018, it was nearly impossible to escape the infectious, syrupy-sweet sentimentality of Ella Mai’s Grammy-winning hit, “Boo’d Up,” from her eponymous debut album. The brainchild of songwriter Joelle James – while a bit of a slow burn from its initial release in February 2017 – was a serendipitous harmony of the nostalgic ‘90s R&B piano melodies, lyrical romantic overtures to unrequited crushes, and a chorus charmingly composed almost entirely of enchanting scatting, almost as if to resemble the stutter-step of a heartbeat caught in one’s throat. The earnestness behind the lyricism and vocals quickly took hold across demographics and gender, the likes of which had last been comparably seen with Fantasia Barrino’s 2007 hit “When I See U” – gaining approval from everyone from Quavo and Chris Brown to Nicki Minaj, who hopped on a remix.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Mai’s sophomore offering, Heart on My Sleeve, is a return to the intergenerational formula of love songs that landed her a double-platinum debut album and a prime spot on Ariana Grande’s world tour. While many of her contemporaries have been parsing apart toxic dynamics, both past and present, in their lyrics, the 27-year-old Brit has chosen to continue to forego that lane, diving headfirst into amorous waters with a sustained brightness and sanguine energy; it seems almost anachronous to the sustained malaise that has seemed to take hold over the general stratosphere since mid-2020. Just in time for the transition from spring to summer, the crooner aims to capture the kinetic crackle of young lovers on a beachside stroll on the boardwalk, caressing one another on a Ferris-wheel ride with only the aroma of funnel cakes and backlighting of carnival rides and late-night fireworks illuminating their intimate embrace — the storyboard of endless videos and romantic comedies, from Grease, to Ashanti and Ja Rule’s “Mesmerize” and Beyonce’s “XO,” to The Notebook and Insecure.

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KEHLANI SEEKS RENEWAL IN BLUE WATER ROAD

Originally published in Mic on May 5th, 2022.


In the most literal sense, the moniker blue water road refers to a stretch of pavement in Malibu where Kehlani worked alongside their team to record their new studio album. Water itself, however, is a transformative source of renewal, cleansing, and turmoil, all interwoven amongst each other in a healing practice – as Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti said in 1975, “water no get enemy.” If there is anyone who is aware of this immutable truth it is Kehlani Parrish, who has been fighting the tide of public scrutiny over two studio albums and three mixtapes; in their latest offering, the 27-year-old Oakland native aims to not only ride the wave but find liberation, restoration, and rebirth, musically and corporeally.

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Fast Food Is Using Your Favorite Rapper to Infiltrate Your Mind and Wallet

Originally published for Eater  on May 3 2022.


Three decades before anyone had ever heard of a Cactus Jack or an Astroworld, everyone wanted to Be Like Mike, and the endorsements for basketball supernova Michael Jordan came swift and heavy. The six-time NBA champion became one of the most marketed sports figures in history — starring in nearly 100 commercials by 2003 — with product deals ranging from his eponymous Air Jordan at Nike to Gatorade.

Jordan’s business choices had long been a massive cultural presence, but his 1990 partnership with McDonald’s brought in a new vanguard during a time when basketball and Black culture were becoming increasingly intertwined. En route to his first NBA championship, Jordan had established a reputation for dining at the eatery every morning for breakfast, and so the chain fashioned a burger named the McJordan after him, the first custom-issue branded meal of its kind: a Quarter Pounder with cheese, smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce. Initially, the sandwich was intended to be a monthlong limited release in select Chicago franchises, appealing to hometown Bulls fans. The overwhelmingly positive response, however, prompted an extension of the offering, branching out to Jordan’s home state and college stomping grounds of North Carolina and a few other states; the promotion ultimately ran from March 1991 to 1993.

As we moved deeper into the ’90s, the dominant cultural cache arguably turned away from sports stars and more toward musicians, particularly those connected to hip-hop and R&B. After the success of cultural curators such as Fab 5 Freddy in connecting uptown hip-hop and graffiti culture with the downtown club kids and tastemakers, and the capitalist triumph of Run-DMC’s Adidas endorsement in the ’80s helping to launch the group into the mainstream, it quickly became clear that the hip-hop industry was a ripe demographic for marketing and collaboration. Music executive Steve Stoute affirmed this trajectory in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. “If really smart corporate executives had wanted to save money on all that market research about what the next new thing was going to be,” Stoute wrote, “they would only have had to turn to the hip-hop community — who were doing the research anyway, selecting trends that looked promising, creating overnight word-of-mouth promotion, and even adding their own product development ideas.”

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Redefining the Working Class

Originally published for The Baffler Magazine Issue no. 63 (“Proletarians”) in May 2022.


THE POSTMORTEMS WERE SWIFT and decisive. Despite winning the popular vote, Hillary Clinton had lost key Rust Belt States. Which meant she had been rejected by working-class voters—those white guys in hard hats. This analysis could be indirect or straight-on. Mark Lilla wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that Clinton’s loss was a rejection of “identity liberalism.” By acknowledging the interests of traditionally disfavored groups, she turned off “the white working class and those with strong religious convictions,” Lilla argued. Two days after the election, Joan C. Williams, author of White Working Class (2017), wrote for the Harvard Business Review that Clinton lost because blue-collar whites saw in her “the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.” Even Bernie Sanders, the so-called paragon of coalition building on the left, found himself deferring to the public narrative. “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite,” Sanders said on a CBS This Morning interview less than a week after election day. “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”

There was nothing new in this critique of a losing Democratic campaign. When Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale, a labor-friendly former vice president from Minnesota, in 1984, a series of focus groups led by the pollster Stanley Greenberg zeroed in on working-class voters in Macomb County, Michigan, who Greenberg famously labeled as “Reagan Democrats.” As one reporter noted at the time, Greenberg “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African Americans.” The New York Times reported a few days after the 1984 election that exit polls showed Mondale winning 90 percent of the African American vote. Yet Mondale apparently had been unable, in the Sanders formulation, to “talk to where I came from.”

There’s no dispute that general working-class support for Democrats has fluctuated from election cycle to election cycle. The one constant, though, is that “working-class” is almost always used in the media to suggest white, male workers. The representative Reagan Democrat was, literally, a white autoworker in Michigan. Even when the white prefix is used to indicate a specific research interest—as in Joan Williams’s White Working Class—there is still an unspoken assumption that this is the part of the working class that matters most. White workers were supposedly neglected in the 2016 campaigns, and so we ended up with Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton.

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