Originally published for LEVEL on January 4, 2021.
More so than other years, 2020 has been encapsulated by grief. Confinement borne of an unforeseen pandemic has forced most of the world to wallow in the depth of its losses and empowered this anguish to strangle us in its isolating grip until it knows most of us by name. Poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, however, has been walking this path of grief for years — ever since her beloved son, A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik Izaak “Phife Dawg” Taylor, lost his long fight with diabetes in 2016.
Taylor speaks grief’s language. She has an intimate familiarity with how the waves of emotion can crescendo into maddening heights, giving way to the empty ache left behind. That closeness gives way to clarity in her newest book: Mama Phife Represents, a delicate latticework of remembrance out this week that explores the days following Phife’s passing in print, photo, and sketch. In doing so, it finds a way to reexamine and reshape how we honor our beloveds in both life and death.
The practice of elegy — rooted in the ancient Greek word elegos, meaning “mournful song” — is a time-honored classical tradition, commonly served in the form of the elegiac couplet. It’s the framework in which English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson laments the loss of his first son, the means by which American great Walt Whitman honors Abraham Lincoln in the oft-referenced “O Captain! My Captain!” But conventions are made to be broken, and the mother of the Funky Diabetic, whose group made its indelible impact in hip-hop with transcendent, unorthodox projects such as People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, delivers nothing less than an offering that honors her familial legacy. The book moves between couplets and freeform prose, pivoting to anecdotes, lyrics, and dreams with an ease and musicality that transport you between the worlds of Malik the man and Phife Dawg the persona—the universes of Linden Boulevard, the superstardom of Tribe, and the cultural anchor that remained in their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.
Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.
Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.
The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.
Originally published for Nylon on December 14th, 2020
Kitty Ca$h is an artist, producer, DJ, and universe all unto her own, having worked with everyone from SZA to Rihanna. In the midst of one of the most destabilizing pandemics of the modern era, Ca$h worked to find and reclaim a happy space for herself and others, combing through the archives of her text messages and the routines that have long brought her comfort.
Through that excavation arrived Kitty’s World, a new IGTV series, and digital reinvigoration of the feeling of running home to watch the BET classic talk show Cita’s World from the early aughts. Reprising the titular role through a contemporary lens, and pushing the vanguard of couture, digital collation, vulnerability, and community, Ca$h created a bridge between generations through the purview of an avatar — each episode a reflection of the different layers of a Black woman’s experience, anchored by contemporary music. From challenging gender norms to honoring the Black Lives Matter movement through music, the cultural innovator worked to bring prescient conversations to the forefront of her animated series through a combination of uninhibited creativity, sharpness, and trust in a collective vision of voices.
NYLON recently spoke with Kitty Ca$h about the series and her hopes for the next season.
This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.
For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter. Abrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.
Originally published for Vulture on September 18th, 2020.
2020 commenced with a great loss in New York’s robust contemporary hip-hop scene: the murder of Canarsie’s prodigal son and prince of Brooklyn drill, Pop Smoke, at just 20 years old. His sudden passing left an indelible vacancy in the city. The loss of one of the booming voices of the New York rap community — whose meteoric career was cut short by a violent end — cratered the community and felt like an overwhelming defeat for one of rap’s newest waves in the city.
However, even a cursory look at the current musical landscape in New York would reveal that there is no dearth of emerging talent across the five boroughs — and not all of it is concentrated in drill. Several niches have developed over the past few years, each with their own distinctive sound. Young talented artists are branching out and blazing trails within the new school, as much of the rest of the country dismissively boxes them in as simply trying to duplicate the sounds of the South. From the small empires being built out of Highbridge to the mantles being passed down in Canarsie, artists are beginning to redefine the soundscapes of New York City — and they are as robust as ever.
The ’90s ushered in both the rise of the South, which demanded acknowledgment of its contributions to hip-hop, and the emergence of the video vixen. It was only natural, then, that the Roc-A-Fella duo of Dame Dash and Jay-Z would extend an olive branch to UGK, one of the fastest-rising duos from Texas at the time, to collaborate on the biggest single of Jay-Z’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. The song almost didn’t happen, however: Reluctant to collaborate with Jay, Pimp C didn’t submit his verse until the 11th hour, even delaying participating in his now-infamous music-video scene with Gloria Velez. (He ultimately had to film in Miami in lieu of Trinidad’s Carnival, the backdrop for the rest of the crew.) —Shamira Ibrahim
From Despondent To Defiant, Dua Saleh’s ‘body cast’ Stomps On Everyday Injustice
May 30, 2020
Dua Saleh — Black, nonbinary, Sudanese and Minnesotan — is driven by the generative work within their communities. They released “body cast” at the close of May, stating that they “intended to save it for a project in the future, but I can’t wait that long with what is happening in my city of Minneapolis.” Over sparse production, they pack in dense couplets, wailing, “Lately I’ve had plaster on my mind / County ain’t on s*** they got bodies on the line / Lately I’ve been analyzing time / Y’all been dodging cameras like they bullets over crime.” In the course of two and half minutes, they veer from despondent to defiant, sinking into angst only to rise back up in rage. The final moments include audio from a viral video of Angela Whitehead asserting her right to refuse the police entry into her property — a vignette that is breathtaking for its utter recalcitrance and almost mythic in its seeming implausibility.
Originally published for Teen Vogue on August 18, 2020.
On March 6, Megan Thee Stallion released Suga, her third extended play project packed with nine bass-heavy tracks about rough sex, making money, and self-love. Anchored by the standout tracks “Savage” and “Captain Hook,” Megan delivered a tongue-in-cheek ode to unrepentant sexual pleasure while switching between rhyme schemes fast enough to give you whiplash.
What would follow was a year filled with women rapping about sexual agency and ensuring that they remain on the foreground of the conversation around hip-hop culture. City Girls, Saweetie, Flo Milli, Doja Cat, and Mulatto all released new music within a four-month span in 2020 as well. Megan’s two major hit songs: “Savage Remix” with Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B broke records. When taking account of 2020’s music distinctiveness, it should be heralded as a year when female rappers took laps around their contemporaries, one hit song after another.
Make no mistake: The power construct in music is still heavily informed by the cishet male gatekeepers of the hip-hop industry. As a genre that historically has served as a magnifying glass for the surrounding environment, patriarchy — and misogynoir in turn — has always received a platform.
But artists like Megan and Cardi B are leveraging their varied skills with a forceful reconstruction of the lascivious Jezebel stereotype that has long been affixed to Black women — removing the shame and immorality from sexual desire and highlighting the transactional power that has always existed. There is a wide range of women’s skill and talent to choose from who are centering their own pleasure and autonomy in a genre that has used the strip club as a litmus test for marketing viability of new songs for the better part of the current millennium.
Doja Cat quickly rose from her novelty single “Moo” off her debut album Amala into a bonafide international star, with singles such as “Juicy,” “Rules,” and “CyberSex,” exploring body positivity, sexual pleasure, and female agency — landing her a coveted feature from Nicki Minaj on the remix Billboard charting single “Say So” in May. Rapper Saweetie, for her part, has navigated the sweet spot of harnessing early 2000s nostalgia while still centering her agency in the song, flipping Petey Pablo’s classic crunk hit “Freek-A-Leek,” “My Type,” and more recently “Tap In.”
Simultaneously, Alabama rapper Flo Milli has quickly risen to relevance, being welcomed into the new vanguard of rappers — with co-signs from The City Girls and Missy Elliott — with her irreverent new project, aptly titled Ho, Why is You Here. Leaning into a brash, bratty timbre with lines that thrust you right into her unrepentant aesthetic, the 20-year-old’s music is as enjoyable as it is clever. “In the Party” and “Beef Flomix” respectively, and have become such cult hits that they can have been found as backing tracks in “fancams” within stan culture; her standout single “Weak” transposes the homonymous SWV track, repurposing it into a dismissive anthem about the failings of men. Her album follows suit accordingly, as each track grows more insolent and cocksure than the last.
The women’s posse is making a comeback too: the Thot Box (Remix) is a collective of up and coming women emcees (Chinese Kitty, Dream Doll, Young MA, Dreezy, and Mulatto) flexing their muscles in response to misogynoir. Cardi B, for her part, has alluded to working on a Ladies’ Night inspired song for her upcoming album.
But how does this moment in rap fit into the greater canon of women’s place in hip-hop history?
The conversation around female artists having agency and sermonizing the power of their sexuality is nothing new. At just 20 years old, a young Kimberly Jones stood alongside her childhood friends Notorious B.I.G. and other label mates in Junior M.A.F.I.A. In a taut 4’11 package, the video for the single “Get Money” off of the group’s debut album, Conspiracy, panned over to a brown-skinned Lil’ Kim, reclining in a salon chair donning a fur, gold chain, and a strapless red dress, while she delivers line after line of erotic haymakers, flexing her sexual power and agency under a mind-blowing flow. Not long after, Lil’ Kim’s career shot into the next gear, with her own debut album, Hardcore, serving as a cultural anchor and template for a new era of women in rap.
As Kim said in the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, “I was supposed to be the girl that was cute and made the guys look good, but I liked being vulgar and explicit sometimes because it made me feel free.”
This disruption was not without significant backlash — as the infamous quote goes, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Coming out of the era dominated by of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and the graphic language reserved for the Biggies and the Jay-Zs of the world, many viewed Kim’s content as oversexed, lewd, and anti-feminist, as opposed to a complement to the content that the other women were producing, similarly to how the Rapsodys and Nonames of the contemporary era are positioned.
Fast forward to present day and the raunchiness that shocked the charts with Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na, Missy and Trina’s “One Minute Man,” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” is still just as subversive — but far less uncommon. A whole new class of young women are rising to the occasion of inverting the norms of male objectification for their benefit in their music. As scholar and authority of hip-hop feminism, Joan Morgan writes in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships — and we accommodate accordingly.”
In the 90s, Lil’ Kim redefined the “alpha” role in hip hop music — and in contemporary times, we see an ascendance of that same perspective, to an overwhelmingly positive reception by the artists’ receptive fanbases, which is a welcome change of circumstances from decades ago. That re-centering of erotic power through women going bar for bar with each other or standing on their own, far from eradicates the industry-standard hip-hop misogyny that still runs rampant, but it allows for having a choice in your relationship with intimacy in hip-hop and power dynamics that is far more expansive than just the cishet male’s perspective.
On the evening of May 30, protesters and police swarmed the streets of Flatbush, a predominantly Black American and West Indian enclave in Brooklyn. It marked one of the most fraught nights of conflict since the uprisings started taking place within the five boroughs. Hundreds of arrests and violent incidents were documented by phone between residents and the police; tear gas spilled in the streets. Late into the evening, after cops successfully kettled protesters between two streets, the atmosphere shifted. Violence escalated, and the gospel that had been blasting in the background changed into the sounds that resonated with the youth. Brooklyn drill hits “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” filled the air as cop cars burned in the background.
Months after his untimely death — a still unresolved home invasion and murder in a California residence — Pop Smoke (aka Bashar Jackson) lives again. The music of Brooklyn’s beloved drill phenom filling the streets as young people united under their feelings of distress and unrest with a world they’ve been forced to accept.
News of Pop’s death was a tragic loss that is still reverberating across New York City — especially the borough of Brooklyn. Streams of his music skyrocketed soon after his transition out of this world, and for weeks, one would be hard pressed to walk down Flatbush or Flatlands Avenue without hearing the song that broke him into the mainstream, “Welcome to the Party,” or his biggest single, “Dior.” On Flatlands Avenue and E 82nd Street, a mural was created in his honor, the first of three. It stood prominently in the background during the funeral procession, where it felt as if his entire hometown neighborhood of Canarsie spilled out into the streets to honor his life — a majestic display not seen in Kings County since the passing of legendary rapper Notorious B.I.G. As noted by culture critic Ivie Ani for The Fader, their musical trajectories echo one another: two young men of West Indian descent who became the pride of their respective Brooklyn enclaves, robbed of what had the promise of being magnificent careers.
A melancholy of Pop’s passing was that he never got to have the triumphant homecoming moment in the city that raised him, thanks to the ever-looming shadow of the NYPD. In October 2019, the “Boys in Blue” requested that he be removed from the lineup at Rolling Loudthe day before the event in question “due to public safety concerns,” claiming his shows were affiliated with unnamed “recent acts of violence citywide.” Upon his return from Paris Fashion Week, Pop was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport and charged with interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle mere hours before a scheduled performance at the Barclays Center honoring deceased A$AP Mob founder and collaborator A$AP Yams. (Those charges have since been dismissed.) The Sunday before his passing, Flatbush’s Kings Theater hosted Brooklyn’s first drill concert, BK Drip, with Pop Smoke featured on the bill. Eventgoers were still regrettably greeted with the message “due to unforeseen circumstances, Pop Smoke will not perform at tonight’s show” as they entered the venue, the space saturated by a heavy police and security presence throughout the largely successful evening.
Pop Smoke’s discography has always been a form of protest — defiant, transgressive, and transformative no matter the space in which it’s consumed. Drill wasn’t necessarily made for the club, but with his frequent partner 808Melo, Pop crafted melodies that existed on multiple levels — simultaneously euphoric and ominous, depending on the mood.
Songs like “PTSD,” “Scenario,” and “Better Have Your Gun” from his first project, Meet the Woo, all now hit different, transforming into a perfect encapsulation of the frenetic, rebellious energy now coursing through the veins of every New Yorker marching through its streets. Track after track, Pop litters acknowledgments to treasured friends who are still making their way through the prison industrial complex, using his distinctive gravelly inflection to depict the extent in which police interference has become accepted as part of their day-to-day life and interactions. On “Better Have Your Gun,” Pop references Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me”— the slain California rapper’s first track after being released from prison — and East Flatbush rapper Shyne’s “Commission.” “What the f*ck is you telling me?” he warns. “I got the pedigree/In the hood, I’m fighting felonies.”
When “Dior,” a track about aspirational accomplishment, is juxtaposed with a burning cop car or a melee in Soho or a cascade of faces parading down Eastern Parkway, the coalescence of energy feels nearly elemental. Pop Smoke’s music threaded together the chaos, fury, trauma, hope, and joy in New Yorkers in a way that no one else had done in quite some time. That accomplishment alone is feat enough to unify a sea of now-burgeoning activists who are screaming to be heard in a system that continues to take Black lives for granted. Pop predicted as much on the JACKBOYS and Travis Scott collaboration “Gatti”: “You cannot say Pop and forget the smoke.”
POP SMOKE’S DISCOGRAPHY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A FORM OF PROTEST — DEFIANT, TRANSGRESSIVE, AND TRANSFORMATIVE NO MATTER THE SPACE IN WHICH IT’S CONSUMED.
Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album, originally slated for June 12, has now been pushed back to July 3; Smoke’s estate shifted in lockstep with the rhythm in Brooklyn. As Steven Victor, CEO of record label Victor Victor Worldwide, explained, though they’ve “seen Pop’s music become the soundtrack of the moment, unifying the masses,” they’ve still “decided to delay the release of his album out of respect for the movement.”
Posthumous adoration inevitably invites speculation of what could have been and what was lost. In the case of Pop, a young man who repped his Panamanian heritage as much as he did his Canarsie hometown, New Yorkers waited for the homecoming track with fellow Brooklynite and Panamanian Bobby Shmurda — his own saga a reflection of the fundamentally broken injustice system. Shmurda is due to be released from prison at the end of the year, but their collaboration is now a reverie that has dissolved into the ether. Pop Smoke, however, still left behind a breadth of work, with rumors of existing collabs from his spiritual forebear 50 Cent, to the “African Giant” Burna Boy himself. A clip of him flipping a sample of Tamia’s “Into You” made the rounds not long after his death to great acclaim, yet another testament to his deceptive versatility across soundscapes. The announcement of his upcoming album allows for endless possibilities in the formation of his legacy, particularly with recent events reframing the context in which his music will now be received. What themes will his project be centered around post-mortem? What boundary will he break next? How will he continue to shake the room from beyond the grave?
When the clock struck midnight on Thursday, fans were gifted the first single off his debut. The gripping “Make It Rain” repurposes lyrics from his appearance on Lil Tjay’s “Zoo York” into a commanding hook, and is coda-ed by an exceptional verse from Bobby Shmurda’s GS9 comrade-in-arms Rowdy Rebel, delivered via a prepaid correctional facility call. “Hello, this is a prepaid call from… Bobby Babayyy!!!” If there was ever a song that tangibly reflects the framework of pain and loss that reverberates around the fringes of New York’s rap scene, it’s this one: Pop Smoke delivering his signature timbre from beyond the grave and Rowdy Rebel getting “the call behind the wall,” triumphantly rising to the challenge, awaiting his moment of redemption as the streets scream “no justice, no peace.” It’s eerily timely, and as defiant as ever. You would expect nothing less.
Two decades ago, Notorious B.I.G.’s final studio project, Life After Death, was released two weeks after his death, already fairly complete. It was a double album replete with mafioso themes and ominous double entendres set to the signature captivating storytelling that made Biggie Smalls an unparalleled talent. On closing track “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” he raps, “Sh*t’s official, only the Feds I fear.” Even on a song full of bravado and swagger, the specter of law enforcement looms large enough to make for an uncannily prophetic epilogue. In 2020, that oeuvre remains ever-present in artists like Pop Smoke, who vocalize tension with the police state on songs that portray trauma, bluster, survival, elation, and trying to find revelry amongst it all. That, more than anything, resonates in the youth that take to the streets day after day, fighting for freedom from the oppressive scrutiny that has for so long gripped their lives.
This was originally published for OkayPlayer on June 16, 2020.
When Power 105.1’s lynchpin morning show The Breakfast Club — hosted by Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee — launched in December 2010, Hot 97 was still the Number 1 “urban contemporary” radio station in New York City, standing strong atop the shoulders of legends such as Angie Martinez and Funkmaster Flex. Nine months after its launch, the show had not gained much ground, teetering on the brink of dissolution.
It was a fateful morning call from jack-of-all-industries Willie “Ray J” Norwood Jr breathlessly recounting his distorted perspective of an altercation with Fabolous in Las Vegas the night before that turned their fortunes around. Quotables about “disrespecting the money team” became entrenched in urban radio lore, reaffirming a tried and true lesson that helped build some of the biggest empires in radio, including that of Charlamagne’s longtime mentor Wendy Williams — controversy and sensationalism obtain views, whether they love or hate it.
Since having Ray J as their first breakout guest, The Breakfast Club‘s Rolodex of guests have expanded in niche and pedigree as they have cemented themselves as the number 1 morning show in urban contemporary media in the greater New York area. Their roster of guests has ranged from artists promoting their latest release to Democraticprimary candidates looking to use the iHeartMedia syndicated Breakfast Club as a hip platform to speak to target demographics for voter turnout. The rubric for programming, however, has continued to adhere to a golden rule: information and accessibility may be a benefit of their now-prominent platform, but it is only secondary to entertainment at all costs — no matter the potential harms of the communities that they purportedly aim to entertain. Donning the moniker “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show,” The Breakfast Club continues to maintain cultural currency by trading in this virality and adopting the ethos of “it’s provocative, it gets the people going,” that is embodied in the show’s most polarizing host Charlamagne, infamous for pushing the most lecherous shock jock commentary on guests (particularly women) to the point he has become inextricable from the Breakfast Club brand.
One such notable example of that ethos took place in 2016 with the planned appearance of Tomi Lahren — at the time a quickly rising upstart in conservative media — on the airwaves of Black urban radio’s preeminent morning show, barely a month after Donald Trump had been elected into office. Despite the booking being canceled by Lahren’s team due to the overwhelming backlash over her appearance on The Daily Show, Charlamagne persisted in engaging a social outing with her, retorting: “Do you want diplomacy or do you want division? I’m talking to Tomi because I care about the rhetoric that comes out of her mouth because she has influence — and the narrative she paints about movements like [Black Lives Matter] is dangerous. The same way people can hit her up on social media and tell her how wrong she is, I can meet with her and tell her the same things.” It’s a curious logic that manipulates the need to embrace the neoliberal need for compromise and continuous discourse, which will always be at odds with the irreconcilable truth of conservative media’s foundational ethos of unshakeable moral conviction.
The argument fails to hold muster when she was heralded by Charlamagne as a template that other women in media should aspire to, writing in a since-deleted tweet: “would be dope if a young black or Hispanic ‘WOKE’ woman used social media to create a Platform to be a voice like Tomi Lahren did.” Strangely enough, such a declaration operates in the same rhetoric often associated through the conservative right media, wild conjecture with no material basis, in fact, dismissing context that allows for specific circumstances — in Lahren’s case, her backing by Glenn Beck’s network, TheBlaze. When roundly presented with a bevy of women’s voices that already exist, he addressed it on the radio show, asking with bewilderment, “…how do we amplify their voices?”
Another such transgression involved comedian and recording artist Lil Duval. The garish 3-minute sequence detailed violence against trans women to raucous laughter and mild chiding about “political correctness,” barely a week after writer, director, producer, and trans activist Janet Mock appeared on the show. At one point, DJ Envy says, “I love when Duval is up here, he be acting a fool,” mere moments after intentionally presenting Mock’s book in Duval’s field of vision, leading to Mock being forcefully misgendered on live air. As Mock said herself in an essay response, “On a black program that often advocates for the safety and lives of black people, its hosts laughed as their guest advocated for the murder of black trans women who are black people, too!”
In a self-assessment of their accountability, not only were the malicious messages redistributed, but the collective also refused to accept any complicity in material harms, soliciting viewer feedback to affirm themselves, and only opening the trans community to further derogatory comments to be said on-air. Instead of truly assessing their responsibility to the Black communities they serve, the discussion diverted into whether or not they should be held to the offense over something a guest said and has refused to apologize for, ignoring media’s responsibility in framing, directing, and guiding discussions. Since then, Duval has appeared on the Breakfast Club twice more, unfettered.
In a repetition of the animus behind Lahren’s presence, a more recent incident involved a highly-publicized interview with Rush Limbaugh amid one of the biggest nationwide fights for transformative accountability of the state-sanctioned death of Black lives lost through police brutality. In an echo of the rationale for inviting Lahren four years prior, grounds were presented on the basis of introducing Limbaugh’s platform to the gravity of the Black community’s plight. The rhetoric hit all of the predictable points: circling around the drain around white privilege; white supremacy; and explaining how individual Black accomplishments don’t dismantle systemic issues — all in the shadow of George Floyd’s memory. While Charlamagne — who would later say the discussion was a “corporate” decision from iHeartMedia — may have insisted, “I’m not letting nobody politicize black pain,” a pre-taped segment that inevitably devolves into discourse for discourse’s sake does exactly that. The segment forced audiences to endure a tête-à-tête over the “liberal, political constructs” that Limbaugh categorically rejects. As Toni Morrison is famously quoted as saying, “racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” There was no substantive reason to engage in this exercise in masochism. However, for the Black audiences that consume the show and are overwhelmed by the delicate choreography that is just existing at the moment, being confronted by that dismissal in yet another space that is primarily sectioned off for them extends beyond unproductive and into firmly counter-revolutionary.
Most recently, the platform extended a friendly invitation to “godfather of hip-hop” Russell Simmons, currently under scrutiny for multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment as several of his survivors tell their stories in the documentary On the Record. Warmly greeted with the honorific “Uncle Russ,” he is granted an unfettered and largely unchallenged space to push his counter-narrative on the largest urban platform from his remote enclave in Bali. Safe from any extradition laws, Simmons insisted that his bevy of romantic relationships with women in Hollywood that have transitioned into extended platonic relationships – in addition to his inclusive hiring practices – inoculate him from criticism. When pressed, he parried with “I really don’t think we should be relitigating 30-year-old stories that had never been told,” a statement that is incorrect considering his accusers — Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, and Sil Lai Abrams — have alluded to the stories in public in various capacities. He alleged that “any investigative reporter would tell you that those stories would have been printed,” dismissing the thorough work of the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter investigative teams. Perhaps most troubling about this interview was that it was allowed to be co-led by Charlamagne tha God, a man with his own documented history of admitted gendered domestic violence of his very own. As of yet, none of the women featured in the documentary have been invited to speak their own truth to power on the platform. (Ed note: Sil Lai Abrams appeared on The Breakfast Club for an interview with Angela Yee the day after this post was published.)
The Breakfast Club’s contracts are slated to end at the close of the year, rounding out a strong 10-year run. Rumors have persisted that Charlamagne, who has gone on to publish a New York Times bestseller, have a top-rated podcast, several TV shows, and a spinoff interview platform of his own, is unlikely to return, ending the reign of the brand by default. At this moment in time, it may be for the best. The aim of Black media platforms shouldn’t be to replicate the harmful norms and standards of their mainstream counterparts. It should be to set a new one that centers Black issues and content in a meaningful and thoughtful manner. The Breakfast Club has shown that they want to lead the market but not lead the conversation, and when times are more tumultuous than ever, to accept that as an adequate approach to media is a disservice to the increasingly scarce platforms that serve our communities.
In a 2016 profile for Vulture, Charlamagne said that there were two critical things to have a finger on to stay on top in the social-media era: “How to keep a conversation going and when to change it.” The trio has made skillful mastery of the former in the annals of their Tribeca Studio. However, on the latter, change commonly seems to come after reprisal and not from a place of thought leadership. Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but the burden of desiring to be the preeminent space for courting heavily trafficked conversations throughout different subsections of the Black community comes with a remit to stay on the vanguard of those conversations with empathy and care. Until that becomes the established priority, they will continue to be challenged on the merits of their programming.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to allegations against Charlamagne tha God. Since we do not have additional reporting to add to this case, and instead linked to a Daily Beast article published on July 26, 2018, we have removed the wording from the piece.