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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, butit 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.
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.
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