What does it mean to be Black?
I’ve come to accept it as both a blessing and a challenge.
The people who devour Rihanna’s music and fumble through slang made popular by Black people are the same individuals who, while growing up, turned to me and asked, “Does me saying 'nigga' bother you?”
Considering the centuries of systematic oppression Black people have experienced—and continue to experience—being able to see Vince Staples push the boundaries of rap, watching Maxine Waters reclaim her time, and relishing in SZA strike a romantic nerve with an entire generation often feels like freedom.
This feeling is reaffirmed on Tyler, The Creator’s new album, Flower Boy, when he raps, “Tell these Black kids they can be who they are.”
It’s a plain-spoken bar given weight by Tyler’s own adventurous ambitions as a producer and rapper who smuggled his budding queerness into arguably his biggest and best album yet. But he took the argument one step further at San Diego Comic-Con last week during a panel for his upcoming Adult Swim show, The Jellies.
A fan asked Tyler why the protagonist Cornell Jellie—who was originally white on the Golf Media version of the show—was now Black. “Why can’t niggas have anything, man?” Tyler replied, exasperated. He then asked the fan to name five Black cartoon characters currently on TV; of course, crickets.
“It’s none on TV right now, so I said fuck that. We gonna make this nigga Black, and he ain’t got no guns, and he ain’t shoot no fuckin’ basketball. He a fuckin’ goober and we gon’ put him on TV.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I couldn’t think of any Black cartoon characters currently on TV, especially ones that challenge society’s default image of Blackness.
Where were the bright, dorky kids like Cleveland Brown, Jr.? Where were the fastidious detectives like Filmore? Where were the effortlessly cool honor students like Jodie Landon from Daria? Where were the brave and bold superheroes like Static Shock?
Two years later, Tyler is making good on a critique from his Cherry Bomb song “BUFFALO” (“Eeny meeny miney moe; nigger nigger on the wall / Rap bars, jail bars, die or shoot a basketball”), being the change he wants to see in the worlds of music and animation.
Odd Future was always a beacon for outcasts and weirdos, even considering the crass way they went about it, but this panel and the whole of Flower Boy further crystallized my view of Tyler’s position in a pop culture whose definition of Blackness is rigid at best.
In their (read: white) eyes, we’re either drug dealers, gangbangers, athletes, slaves, protesters or prisoners. We can’t be the kid who loves Mac DeMarco as much as Pusha T; who wears Hawaiian shirts in the winter and strawberry sweats in the summer; who doodles in notebooks and puts cats on t-shirts with pastel Converses. Just being Black without a label does not compute.
Open Mike Eagle’s anxious comedy comes to mind whenever I think of labels. The Chicago veteran has made a career of defying expectations of Blackness by living at the borderline of rap and stand-up comedy, where Michel’le and The Ice King from Adventure Time can share space in the stanzas. But his bluntness hits hard on a song like “Qualifiers”: “Fuck you if you’re a white man who assumes I speak for Black folks / Fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for Black folks.” Eagle just wants to be as he chooses and I couldn’t possibly relate more.
His next project, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is a concept album dedicated to the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects whose demolition 10 years ago serves as an analogue to displaced and unheard Black voices across the country. Sometimes, he's able to find solace in a radio; sometimes, he’s lamenting public indifference for Black lives through a made-up talk show, but his humor cut to the bone before JAY-Z reminded O.J. Simpson that he is indeed still Black.
There are many flavors of Blackness to explore in the world of rap and I’ll continue to embrace them all. But I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for those pushing against the grain. I’ll always stand by the multicolored emo rock ethos of a Lil Uzi Vert or the bubble gum smile of a Lil Yachty. I’ll always be drawn to genre-defying polymaths like Frank Ocean and Donald Glover. I’ll always root for the anxious comedy and adventurous spirit of an Open Mike Eagle. I’ll always have an ear for rappers navigating while “living in the land of keystrokes and passwords / Cheat codes, amiibos, and actors” like Sammus.
I’ll always love the Cornell Jellies of the world.
There’s more of them now than ever before, but we need to listen to their voices now more than ever. We need to tell these Black kids they can be who the fuck they are.