Black identity in the United States is multi-faceted, yet is often reduced to a few clichés in popular culture. When I was growing up - outside of America - my perception of my brothers on the other side of the Atlantic was shaped mostly through hip hop and sports. I, along with billions of kids worldwide was presented with very few aspects of the African American culture. The reality it turns out, is more nuanced. And now that African Americans are re-taking control of their narrative, they get to shape perceptions more accurately. The methods and means of telling the stories may vary, but one thing is for certain, the audience has never been wider and more diverse than it is today. Driven by a collective awakening, black creatives are capitalizing on new opportunities in music, film, and fashion.
When the Atlanta collective Migos released their ‘Culture’ album in 2017 the title left many perplexed. How can 3 twenty something year-olds from Atlanta who rap mainly about “ice” and lightly dressed women dare claim to represent The Culture? Let me be clear, artists such as the Migos undeniably reinforce negative stereotypes about the African American community, but that’s beside the point. The trio is the voice of the contagious Atlanta trap movement. Whether you like them or not, they’ve given a global stage to their subculture. But more importantly, they’ve done it in an unapologetic way. Aided by the advent of music networking platforms such as soundcloud, they’ve managed to preserve their authenticity. The music industry in that regard has always been more liberal than cinema and grew less constrained by censorship or production codes.
When it comes to the representation of black culture on the big screen, things have been less unfiltered. Black actors have mainly been type casted as loud, goofy and dumb, as seen in popular films like ‘The Nutty Professor’ and ‘Fat Albert’ - just to name a few. And sadly, the public grew accustomed to those derogatory portrayals. The reasons for this are quite fundamental, that is, studio heads, movie directors, scriptwriters and all of those in charge of shaping the end product were almost never black. As a matter of fact, a recent study by the University of Southern California found that only 26.2% of characters were from minority groups when directors were white compared to 43.7% when directors were from minorities themselves*. Productions such as ‘Get Out’ and ‘Black Panther’ illustrate this paradigm quiet well and indicate that our foot is in the door, albeit timidly. Nonetheless, we are witnessing structural shifts that need to be reckoned with. Even the world of fashion, notorious for its impenetrability, is not immune to the new narrative.
Remember when Kanye West couldn’t get his shoes in Nike showrooms? Adidas does. ‘Yeezys’ are selling like cupcakes, and have definitely boosted the German company’s bottom line. It’s almost hard to imagine that ‘Ye’ was laughed out a few years ago when he told a bemused crowd at the VMA’s that we collectively needed to “listen to the kids”**. Today, informed by market trends showing, amongst other things, that by 2026 millenials will be the main consumers of luxury***, LVMH named Kanye’s long time artistic consultant and off-white founder, Virgil Abloh, as its menswear designer. This is a big step forward considering that in a not so distant past black celebrities have primarily had endorsement value for brands. The transition to being part of the creative process and leading legacy apparel houses was a long time coming.
Now that barriers are being torn apart and black folks are on their way to realizing their full potential, amidst the occasional setbacks, it is a good time to reflect. We must reflect not only on the struggles and the pain of the past but on the path forward and the promise and the hope of the future. The playing field has opened up in ways I’ve never seen before, begging me to question my part to play. And I can’t be the only one thinking like this, right?