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.”
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?”
Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.
A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”
Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Lifeseason 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.
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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Ten years have passed since Whitney Houston last graced us with her presence on this earth, a globally beloved icon whose gift wasn’t just a testament to the beauty and power of the human voice, but also the resilience of the human spirit. As the best-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century and one of the best-selling singles artists in history, she has acquired numerous accolades over the course of her career: more than 200 million records and singles sold worldwide, multiple blockbuster films and soundtracks, eight Grammy awards. But most critically, to engage with Whitney’s work, both musically and culturally, is to engage in the work of the divine.It is the faith that informs her vocal style and Black American cultural legacy; that same faith would help her persevere through trials and tribulations when many had become more invested in wading through sordid details of her personal life than embracing her humanity.
There was an effortless purity in Whitney’s power; her crescendoing key changes washed over you like a tidal wave while she commanded the stage with her modelesque grace. Her charm and talent were dynamic and irresistible, rendering even the harshest critics helpless, aiding in crafting her as both the darling of pop, as well as the Black American community. She was a woman who—to paraphrase the words of the Houston family pastor—consistently fought to find a bright light in a dark place, wherever that may be.
In the decade since her passing, much may have changed about popular music, but the impact Whitney has left on her ability to bring life to the universal accessibility of the range of human emotions to the pop ballad remains. On this anniversary, let us take a look at some of the more pivotal moments of her life, through the lens of the following select photos.
Janet Jackson’s signature timbre is delicate but firm; it has been her calling card since her youthful days performing alongside her brother Randy at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Even then her petulant demeanor, performed for laughs, communicated achildlike grace with matureclarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Tracesof Janet Jackson’s musical DNA would eventually be in everyone from Britney Spears to Bruno Mars to BTS. These are far from novel assessments: Over the years, a number of projects have attempted palliative approaches to rectify the rocky narrative that trailed Jackson after her infamous Super Bowl halftime show — including the rare at-length interview — with the New York Times recently producing a special embracing the pop icon’s transcendent, multigenerational impact that was upended by one of the few forces beyond her control. Now, at long last, Damita Jo has given the definitive account of her life and career to add to her oeuvre — and not a moment too soon, as we’ve lost Black legends in rapid succession of late. Aretha Franklin, who was notoriously very hawkish over her memory and legacy as awalking archive of the Black sonic canon, transitioned before she could see her vision realized onscreen, relegating the arbitrage of authenticity over Jennifer Hudson’s and Cynthia Erivo’s portrayals to a mélange of family, friends, and fans, as opposed to engaging with the art itself.
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 withEmily 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.
Over dinner at Bar Centrale, a Theater District haunt in New York City, Tessa Thompson is discussing the scope of her work and how she processes it. Typical interview fare. Then comes the unexpected analogy to Sisqó. Back in the ’90s, she was visiting her dad, Chocolate Genius Inc. musician Marc Anthony Thompson, at a hotel when she realized that the R&B star and his group, Dru Hill, were staying there too. The famed “In My Bed” quartet had rolled up in an SUV blaring their tunes at full volume. “It was cool,” Thompson says, admiring the levels of self-affirmation. “I don’t typically Sisqó around the things I’m in. If I watch them, I’ve got like one viewing, you know?”
No matter; the rest of the world has its eyes locked on Thompson, 38, even if she has become adept at blocking out the collective glare. (In truth, she considers herself “an analog girl in a digital world” — à la Erykah Badu — and secretly wishes she could throw her phone in a lake somewhere.) The growing curiosity that swirls around her is a by-product of her undeniable talent, diverse filmography — the Marvel superheroine Valkyrie; a civil rights leader in Selma; a defiant artist-activist in Sorry to Bother You; a calculating boss lady turned robot in Westworld; a woman born out of Janelle Monáe’s vagina pants in the music video “Pynk” — and her ability to transmit an IDGAF attitude when it comes to any speculation about her personal life or style choices.