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 Joy, expected 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 tohip-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.”
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.
Ever since Syd arrived on the Southern California scene with the avant-garde “Flashlight” at just 16 years old, it’s been clear that the multi-hyphenate artist has a unique capability to sink her teeth into the tender flesh of intimacy and capture lightning-in-a-bottle moments through her music. Her lyricism is both erotic and emotional, a sublime counterpunch to the understated, sapphic sensuality of her production — the combination has shaped a contemporary remix of the Quiet Storm era of R&B. With the 29-year-old artist’s latest album, however, she planned to introduce the world to something new, something deeper: a journey of her love in song.
It’s impossible to discuss the last 25 years of Black popular music criticism without invoking the name Danyel Smith—the first woman to serve as Vibe magazine’s editor in chief. Between her career as a writer, helping capture and document the musical soundscapes that reflect different facets of Black life, to her personal journey, anchored by the ebbs and flows of Black popular culture—Smith’s frame of reference is deeply informed by an innate understanding of the transformative power of music history and its integral role in the definition of cultural identity and belonging. Now, with Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop, Smith expertly places herself in the canon of Black writers and de facto archivists such as Greg Tate, Cheryl Wall, and Saidiya Hartman. It’s part history, part memoir, and along the way, it also reclaims Black women’s rightful place in pop music.
Shamira Ibrahim: One thing I’ve always liked about your writing is the way you make these intricate connections. You start with connecting “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer to the 18th-century poet Phyllis Wheatley. How have you honed the ability to draw these connections for people who may not immediately see the through-lines that go from antebellum slavery through generations of pop music?
Danyel Smith: I appreciate the close attention to the text—that always matters to me very much. At this point in my career, it’s just the way I think, and frankly, I decided to stop fighting it. I have training as a journalist – years of on-the-job training, some training from school, some me training myself, and a lot of that has to do with getting things right. Getting the dates right, getting the moments right, getting the details right. For me, a big part of my work is resisting summary; I feel like so often, Black women’s lives are written about in summary. It is a privilege to have the time, honestly, to just actually think.
I really do adore and admire and often engage with Phyllis Wheatley and her work; the same for Donna Summer. I don’t know that I thought about them both being Boston girls until I was getting close to maybe the midpoint of this book. You’re just writing Boston a million times, and you’re checking your spelling of Massachusetts a million times, and something shakes out; you hear the Boston inflection again in Donna Summers’ voice. It came to me because I had time to think and then had the confidence to stop fighting that negative voice in my head that says, “does that really matter?”