“All humor is rooted in pain.” —Richard Pryor
It’s been over a decade since the world lost one of the greatest comedic minds we’ve ever known in Richard Pryor. Widely regarded as one of the greatest comedians of all time, Pryor used his proficiency in humor to address issues that plagued the world around him, especially racial issues.
50 years after Pryor’s introduction to comedy, many of those issues are still unfortunately prevalent in society. The country’s racial climate, in particular, is frighteningly similar to that of the '60s, when Pryor began his rise to prominence.
While Pryor’s legacy of greatness can still be felt in the world of comedy, a recent development has brought on the possibility of his genius being introduced to a new generation of youth in a time where his message is needed more than ever.
Shortly after the news of Jay Z signing a television and film development deal with The Weinstein Company, it was revealed last Thursday (October 6) that the NYC-bred mogul would produce a biopic on none other than Richard Pryor.
While Pryor’s personal involvement in hip-hop culture was slim, his influence on artists has been felt throughout the entirety of hip-hop’s evolution. A quick browse through WhoSampled will make Pryor’s mark on hip-hop immediately apparent, as he’s been sampled by everyone from Ol' Dirty Bastard to 2Pac to Guilty Simpson.
As both a comedian and a human being, Pryor rejected the idea of the “safe black man,” a portrayal that had been perpetrated by the media throughout his entire life. Pryor was black and proud and made no attempts to put people at ease through an innocuous existence within the limelight.
In the '70s, Pryor made a decision to personally reclaim “the n-word” to remove its power and rise above the hatred it represented. For years, his act—and many of their working titles—heavily included the term.
Saying it changed me, yes it did. It gave me strength, let me rise above …
Though he later denounced the use of the term after a visit to Kenya, his early work played a seminal role in raising a generation of young Black men and women who resolved to reclaim the word as their own as a term of empowerment rather than hatred.
Many of Pryor’s best artistic moments were deeply rooted in his own personal experiences as a Black man in America. The same can be said for countless hip-hop artists, as the genre has largely served as artistic documentation of individual experiences just as much as fictional expression. Through Pryor’s successes and failures, his genius conveyance of his experiences resonated with artists like Jay Z, who claimed that “[Pryor's] story is an American story,” and said of the film, “You'll understand how many lives he's touched. I mean, from every single comedian to rappers like Biggie Smalls.”
Jay Z, an entertainer who has also experienced both extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum, is the perfect figure to introduce Pryor to a new generation. Jay’s own career has acted as an inspiration to countless Black men and women, who have witnessed his evolution from admitted drug dealer to one of the most powerful individuals in hip-hop today.
At a time when the country continues to deal with the consequences of hundreds of years of systematic racial inequality, Pryor’s voice and message are still largely needed in society at large, and hip-hop has dutifully acted as a vessel through which to keep them alive.
Through the interest of the hip-hop community being piqued both by the subject matter and Jay-Z's involvement, Pryor’s message is about to be heard and felt by a whole new generation of artists, activists, teachers, and students, and will continue to inspire them to use their art as an agent of change through love and empowerment.
Though we lost Pryor in the physical form, his ideas continue to improve lives and inspire change.