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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published for Vulture on March 30, 2022.
When Angelique Kidjo accepted her 2016 Grammy for Best Global Music Album, she forecasted a future well beyond her own accomplishments. “I want to dedicate this Grammy to all the traditional musicians in Africa in my country, to all the younger generations that knew our music,” the Beninese artist said. “Africa is on the rise.”
It was a bold premonition, and one without much precedent in the United States. For a long time, the Grammys and American music industry at large relegated artists like Kidjo to the nebulous genre of “world music,” which, alongside Latin pop and reggae, remained one of several niches that were stratified not by any technical criteria, but by a vaguely colonial pan-ethnic taxonomy. It’s why salsero Marc Anthony, rocker Juanes, and música urbana artist Bad Bunny could receive the same award, despite having disparate musical skill sets, or why Best Reggae Album frequently featured dancehall artists; adherence to indigeneity is not the standard.
Originally published for Refinery29 on March 4, 2022.
On February 24, Russia breached the Ukrainian border, invading the country from four directions. Immediately, the western world mobilized in support of the Ukrainian people: #IStandWithUkraine trended globally, and brands everywhere shared messages of solidarity, sporting the Ukrainian flag. In a rare first, people seemed to be mostly united on a topic of international affairs: the Ukrainian people needed support, and anyone fleeing the casualties of war should absolutely have the right to be afforded shelter and protection. Unfortunately, the hidden caveat of international diplomacy is that it is predicated on a global framework of anti-Blackness, and the current conflict is no exception.
Originally published for Refinery29 on January 7th, 2022.
Over the last couple of years, streaming services have expanded their offerings of projects based in France. While Netflix’s international team has been licensing content and producing original programming in French for some time, the platform struck gold with Emily in Paris, a sanguine — or almost unbearably saccharine, depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you ask — series which centers Lily Collins as Emily, a doe-eyed All-American girl eager to bring her Yankee sensibilities to the City of Love. A few months after EIP’s ubiquitous debut came Lupin in January 2021, a thriller series starring Omar Sy and inspired by the beloved character Arsène Lupin of books, comics, cartoon, and film — a master of disguise and thievery, nearly always portrayed as a white man. While both shows have been runaway hits, they have also been criticized for not having a balanced representation of France, specifically for lacking Black women in any major speaking roles. The reflexive irritation is understandable, as on-screen representation is a common reference point used to reflect the significance of any demographic in the narrative being told. But in French popular media, this glaring omission is actually pretty standard.In Emily in Paris, which debuted its second season last month with a new Black male lead (Lucien Laviscount as Alfie), Black women are barely seen in the background of the streets of Paris, save for an occasional view in the periphery, tucked away from view, up until a fashion show at Versailles. Even in the halls of the historic palace, the women remain as voiceless ornaments for the garish aesthetic of a queer Black male designer (portrayed by Jeremy O. Harris), using the sheer presence of their bodies and all of their twerking, voguing, and ballroom contortions in such a revered space to make his mark as an outsider in the French fashion establishment. Black femmes were used for nothing but spectacle.
Originally published for Allure Magazine on September 17th, 2021.
“I love water. I love praying into the water before I get to a bath, or even just to take a shower,” says Juju Bae, a Hoodoo and Ifa practitioner who speaks about Black traditional religions on her podcast, A Little Juju. “Even if I’m not always putting all the good juju in the water, water in itself is holy. Water itself can hold your intention.”
In many Black spiritual practices that predate colonial interactions, there has long been a reverence for water and cleansing. These rituals and concepts have been preserved and transported to the Americas and beyond as a byproduct of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. They can be found in everything from African Traditional Religions and their descendants, such as Ifa and Black American Hoodoo, to the cultural syncretism embedded in Black expressions of Abrahamic religions.
“Water has no enemy,” says Juju Bae. “It cleanses us physically, it cleanses us spiritually.” She emphasizes that in many African Traditional Religions, water is venerated and viewed as a life source. In the West, she notes, that reverence for nature isn’t typically quite as significant. This has a distinct effect on Black people’s contemporary relationship to water and its multifaceted uses. And in recent months, an aversion to water, soap, or any kind of hygienic tool or practice has been brought to the forefront of our cultural discourse.