The Value of Pop Culture Commentary
Aka Why the Conversations Surrounding Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Chris Rock, and the Oscars Are Important Among Black People
As we all know, Will Smith slapped the hell out of Chris Rock at the Oscars over a joke made about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s appearance — specifically referencing her bald head from alopecia: an autoimmune disease. I saw many Black radical peers of mine break down certain concepts from certain ideologies, theory, books, and more to share some real concise thoughts to contribute during what is considered a massive “pop culture moment.” Meaning…everybody and they grandmama are talking about it.
Now, moments like these are important in the Black community especially. Why? Well so much of “amerikkkan” culture is actually our own being appropriated. And Black celebrities are deeply meaningful to a majority of the Black masses, including the Black working class masses. So, when famous people, who look like us, are being talked about — actually let me correct that: are the main topic of conversation across all media. Best believe many of us plug in. Does this make celebrityhood or the cult of celebrity, okay? Absolutely not. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have celebrities. In the worlds many of us hope to strive for and envision, celebrityhood dies.
However, we are not there yet; not even close. The reality is: celebrities exist, they wield a whole ton of wealth, and a fuck ton of power meaning they have an instrumental influence on the masses. I mean think about it, why is it a big deal when a celebrity endorses a certain political candidate? Society, as is, relies on celebrityhood to be something worthy to aspire towards. It’s been served to Black working class folks on a platter saying: this is the ticket out the hood, this is the ticket out of whatever material conditions you’re experiencing. Celebrities are deified, glorified, and it’s not without intention. Circling back to what I asked, why is it a big deal when a celebrity endorses a certain political candidate? Because celebrities have that much sway among the masses to potentially create a wave of voters pointed towards another leader within or of the US empire. Again do we want this to be a reality? No! But this is what celebrityhood looks like right now and that’s exactly why it must be talked about. It also consists of many, many, many pop culture moments where we see either shocking or horrifying shit play out that show the very failures of a settler colonial state (quick example: #MeToo & Harvey Weinstein).
Knowing that, pop culture moments can be seen as the access point for many people to first have a realization such as, “oh the Academy is an all white institution and has excused tons of violence from white men, never thought about that.” Or where people run into certain words like: “ableism” and “misogynoir” for the first time. Shit, even with disability - a large number of people are still learning to not associate disability with whatever messed up stereotype that has been fed to us or the fact disability is not at all inherently negative. In moments such as this, people are confronted with ideas that go against what they were taught. They are uncomfortable but willing to listen, or uncomfortable and engaging, or simply watching in silence and observing. Regardless, “pop culture moments” are important because they can serve as a gateway to the beginnings of radicalization.
Pop culture has always held importance among Black people and so the conversations that follow each moment holds heavy importance. Usually what we see is that no matter the influence and wealth, ain’t nothing stops us from being Black at the end of the day. It’s a sobering moment for an enormous number of people who aspire to, look to, and protect celebrities constantly. Some of you reading are probably thinking, “well obviously.” I ask you to consider that while the internet is a vast place with access to more information than ever. We also must consider social media is a place where many of us get our news nowadays, it’s where celebrities live, it’s where internal internet jokes are made, and so in effect, we can often find ourselves in a bubble with people who think similarly to ourselves. When a “pop culture moment” happens, that bubble has a very likely chance of being burst.
With a burst bubble, we got the potential to nudge some folks to a different way of thinking — a way that’s actually rooted in questioning, “why was such joke made,” “why was that joke not in good taste,” “why is it wrong to make fun of an autoimmune disease especially on a large platform but also how does that impact Black people in my own life,” “why are non Black people so committed to policing Black peoples reactions,” “why are we always told how to act by white people?” “why do we care about celebrities so much?”
Many of us understand that there are times we gotta meet our own people where they are at and push. Moments such as these are probably the worst time to descend from the sky speaking on theory and ideologies in ways that are inaccessible to our own kin with big ass words. I think where many people’s frustrations lie is that we do not have a revolutionary culture. A revolutionary culture is essential in propelling a movement forward. The work that many Black radicals attempt to do is create the foundation for Black revolutionary culture to be more widespread. Radicalization is but a seed, so a moment such as this at the Oscars is but a seed too, actually there are multiple seeds. But seeds bloom — and those take time as well. It’s unfathomable to actually believe every single person in our community is going to immediately understand or be willing to understand what ableism is, what is misogynoir is, the double standard on violence, or how there’s even more irony when this entire government is violent from its inception and onward — so who are they to determine what violence is. But we can try to jumpstart that process of understanding.
I remember the latter question was one I was asking in 2016, after what? Pop culture commentary. And that was how I was handed Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Following that, I had more questions, which led me to: Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon — specifically the first chapter: On Violence. Side note: there’s a really good documentary version of this called Concerning Violence with Lauryn Hill doing the voice over and also a picture book I found at The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles years ago. From that I was able to understand when violent systems are created, they will not go quietly and peacefully. The quote, “colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat” immediately comes to mind. That ultimately opened a plethora of writings by Black revolutionaries and cultural workers who spoke on formations, movements, and moments within the history of Black liberation. From Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston to Safiya Bukhari and Butch Lee. To James Yaki Sayles and Nkrumah to Kwame Ture and Amilcar Cabral. And so on and so forth. I learned there’s a tradition of fighting for our self determination that has existed long before I ever imagined.
To this day, the learning has never ended, but it did start somewhere. To this day, I see the need to push and expand our analysis from what it once was to what it could be and I’ve been lucky enough to watch that very necessary and hard work be done. From weigh-ins on pop culture to grassroots organizing to creating multimedia as agitation propaganda as a means of helping folks question the conditions we live under, to engaging in popular education and so on — but each aspect holds importance and will continue.
There are many of us who dream of a life better than this yet don’t have the names for experiences we thought were “normal parts of life,” that are actually abnormal. Such as: the hyper focus on a grind culture led to me learning about productivity, capitalism, and wage labor. Or me sitting while struggling to receive care while battling cancer in 2017, asking why does nearly every Black person I know has lost a family member they know in the hospital? That’s how I learned about medical racism, neglect, and medical apartheid’s connection to enslavement. Or why do Black people experience police brutality? Which led me to understanding the function of the police being to protect property, the rich, and the government and its history with enslavement — with that, suddenly I understood more deeply how it’s not “accidental” that Black people are being murdered — it’s intentional.
I could keep going but I think you all get it: I wouldn’t have started asking those questions and continuing to learn if it wasn’t for Black people who I didn’t know, taking the time online to explain in a tweet or Facebook post why certain events unfolding held different consequences for Black people. For us. I didn’t learn everything I have over the years in one post — but one post was just enough for me to have a “lightbulb moment.” A seed was planted. And then it bloomed.
If you appreciated this piece, please consider supporting me by:
Patreon: patreon.com/itswalela — I have even more work, essays, poetry, book and movie reviews, a writing group, and more — the lowest tier is $1