I usually try to temper my pronouncement of superlatives in case someone’s opinions differ from mine, but there can be no real debate on the funniest thing that ever happened on TV. Not just on “Black” TV, and not just on recent television. The most hilarious thing that ever appeared on a television screen in the history of the medium is Charlie Murphy’s Rick James True Hollywood Story on Chapelle’s Show.
There is a part of the episode where Charlie tells the story of Rick James visiting Eddie Murphy’s home. Eddie allows his friend Rick James to come inside his mansion that he had just outfitted with expensive all-white furniture. Rick was so crazy that he plopped down in the living room, made himself comfortable, and immediately began wiping his muddy boots all over the brand new, sparkling white sofa. When Eddie objects, as the story goes, The Superfreak told him “Fuck yo’ couch, nigga!” It was one of the earliest internet memes for when someone causes defiant havoc or acted like they just didn’t give a damn.
There is something going on with Black people.
I know you feel it. I know you see it. It feels like the insubmissive tone of a lady refusing to put out her cigarette after being stopped for failing to signal, because — fuck his couch. It looks like the local news’ black weather woman, chopping off her perm and wearing it natural even though it doesn’t look corporate and mainstream, because — fuck their couch.
I have had conversations with women who told me they finally became comfortable with themselves after they reached a certain point in their maturation. They found a newfound love for themselves, the curves in their bodies and all their imperfections. After a certain age, they began to shed their insecurities and become pleased with who they really are. Maybe Black people have collectively reached that age.
Or maybe it is just Beyonce.
This Friday, out of nowhere, pop star Beyonce dropped a video and a new song entitled “Formation” that made the internet go crazy. I’m not a Beyonce “stan” and her songs rarely pierce the bubble of my musical universe, but social media was blowing it up like Jesus had just tweeted that he was on his way back, so I took a look and listen.
And then again. And again.
I knew I was witnessing and hearing the Blackest song I had ever heard. It was Black like John Carlos and Tommy Smith’s standing on the podium. It was Black like the smell of your girlfriend’s bedtime hair bonnet. It was black like how we talk when white people aren’t around. It dropped its r’s and sucked its teeth. “Formation” is so Black it damn near needs a translation, and you can be sure someone as media savvy and shrewd as Beyonce knows it — which can only lead me to one conclusion: Beyonce doesn’t give a fuck. Beyonce doesn’t give a fuck if they don’t know that Red Lobster is the Tavern On The Green for the collective of Blackness. Beyonce doesn’t give a fuck if they don’t know what “baby hair” is.
How Black is Formation?
Black people lament what happened to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice et al. It makes us sad. To a younger generation, the civil rights movement seems as far away as slavery and Jim Crow. But we remember Katrina. It is a modern-day metaphor for how America handles her quadruple-centuries-old negro problem: If a storm comes, or the levees break, let them niggers drown. We watched it happen.
Katrina makes us mad.
Beyonce knows that, so she opens the video on top of a drowning New Orleans Police car.
Blackness is something that many of us have been ashamed of. Even as we publicly declared “Black is Beautiful” we eschewed ebonics and homogenized our speech, our looks, and even our souls. We tempered Blackness with respectability, straight hair and non-threatening smiles. We were reluctant to eat watermelon or fried chicken in public. We sought to assimilate. We wanted to be embraced and understood.
We are now morphing into a generation who sees futility in compliance, but it is not like the peaceful resistance, asking-for-equality of the civil rights era. We are no longer the pro-black defiance of the seventies. It is even different from the Afrocentrism of the Public Enemy, X-Clan, African medallion wearers of the 80’s. If you listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” or D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” you slowly start to realize they’re not even talking to white America anymore. The new art is a conversation among ourselves, without regard to whether the rest of the world is even listening. That is not a difficult task in hip hop or R&B – a music created primarily by and for Black people.
Beyonce is different, though. She is a pop star. She’s not supposed to talk like that while the door is open. They know she’s Black, but she’s not supposed to remind them that the syrupy, sassy “flavor” of Beyonce soup is just ground-down remnants of slavery and Jim Crow. But lately she’s been hissing and spitting. She rolls her eyes. She pats her weave. Her mama’s Louisiana. Her daddy is Alabama.
A diatribe about casting aside the European beauty aesthetic to embrace traditional African features is not a revolutionary act. Showing the world a millionaire toddler heiress bouncing around barefoot, laughing in all her nappiness while her mama serenades “baby hair”, afros and “Jackson Five nostrils” is brazen artistry. Beyonce knows that Blackness sometimes stands at the precipice of ratchetness and peers over the edge. The trick is learning to embrace it all like a southern drawl or how people from Texas wear cowboy boots with everything. While discussing the popularity of reality TV, the great poet Orron Kenyetta once told me that one of his biggest frustrations stems from the fact that he “has a propensity to embrace dumb shit.” For the past few years, that was my favorite quote.
I have a new one now.
If you distilled all the savory essence of new millenium Blackness down to a bullion cube of a sentence, it would be this:
“I got hot-sauce-in-my-bag swag.”
If you don’t understand the Shakespearean efficiency of that sentence, then… fuck you. It is beautiful. It is juke-joint, fish grease, slap-down-the-big-joker-in-spades beautiful. It is like dismissing the Hotep idiocy of secret society YouTube conspiracists, as “Illuminati mess.” Mess is not even an English word any more. The only people who use it are soldiers headed to the cafeteria and Black grandmamas. There is a thick dark-skinned poetry in the dismissiveness of mess.
Then it happened.
It is one thing when Beyonce takes those caucasian dollars and quietly bails out the protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore or build a 43-unit apartment complex for the homeless displaced by Katrina, but she went farther. Sticking her middle finger up, at whomever-it-was-intended-for was not enough because Beyonce marched onto the stage with backup dancers dressed as Black Panthers at halftime of the Super Bowl and said it to America’s face. Then she warned them she “just might be a young Bill Gates in the making.”
Again, I am not a member of the “Beyhive,” and I don’t know if Beyonce is trying to ride the wave of public sentiment, if her feelings are genuine or if simply having a Black baby has awakened her. I honestly don’t care. I am talking about this thing, and this thing is so Black. It is so Black that it never even mentions the word in it. So Black that it contains the word “negro.” So Black that it ends with the graffiti on the wall that spells out “Stop Shooting Us.” Then there’s this:
Go ‘head Bey.
Fuck their couch…