Takeoff and two degrees.

I often joke that if there are six degrees of separation between the average white American and the average white American celebrity that there are only two between the average black American and the average black American celebrity. Sometimes merely one. Black Hollywood? Is very small.

Not only is Black Hollywood very small, but it is still young enough that some of our most famous celebrities come from very humble beginnings. We have yet to enjoy the widespread nepotism that has been a boon to children of white celebrities for multiple generations. Because of this, and because rap music is still so tied to general American youth culture, and because the roots of hip hop are still firmly situated in urban areas plagued by crime and poor infrastructure, a young and wildly famous black American rapper could find himself hobnobbing with criminals.

That is not to say that white celebrities are not fond of criminals—or are not criminals themselves! There are the mob-loving crooners of yesteryear and the abusive and/or drug-addled celebrities we know all too well today. But those associations are not borne from the structure of our bigoted society, they are deliberate choices made in how to structure one’s social life.

Takeoff’s death is an unnecessary tragedy, one that I am wary about discussing on a platform that has grown so belligerently anti-black as Twitter. But his murder needs to be acknowledged by his peers, by Black America, by his fans, by the people who cared for him deeply. After all, he was only two degrees away from us. And his life mattered to so many.

I say this regretfully, because the tight circle of Black Hollywood and Black America often allows the average black person to interact with celebrities they admire, but perhaps it is time to add another degree. Perhaps we as average citizens should not have that type of access to celebrities for the safety of those very celebrities who are so dear to us.

Though I agree with Sanders, black celebrities should not be cut off from having social lives. Nor should they have to avoid socializing with their communities—with the black people they are drawn to and grew alongside. But one can easily have a life bursting with black culture and black people without ever interacting with those who would cause them harm.

Security costs money. And given America’s gun obsession, there is no place in this country where one is guaranteed freedom from a bullet. However, the more expensive an area, the more security it will have, and the less likely one is to die from gun violence. There are nightlife regions that are black and upscale—fully reserved for those within a certain income bracket and known to be completely intolerant towards gun violence. I hate advocating for class separation, but it is only for one sphere of life (after-hours partying), and it would result in a safer experience for those celebrities. For everything else? We could be as one.   



I will make this short, but sweet. Should Rihanna ever allow a surgeon to carve into her face, to raise the slope of her nose and narrow the bridge between her wide, sparkling eyes, she would cease to be unique. For unlike the many pop princesses who have preceded her, women who have unfortunately thinned their features to secure public acceptance, Rihanna’s beauty is subversive. Cloaked in the light skin that is erroneously heralded as superior in many cultures, Rihanna’s decidedly wide African features are allowed to project boldly from the covers of fashion magazines, to be emblazoned upon billboards, to slip across our television screens, to be uniformly heralded as what they are and would sadly not be considered should they be found upon a woman of a darker hue—beautiful.

Like water eroding stone, each appearance, each reinforcement of her desirability is a slow and steady wearing away of the narrow and racist standards of beauty that have maintained a chokehold upon North and South America for centuries. Like a bombshell girl of the forties, Rihanna is a symbol of warfare, though cultural rather than conventional. Undoubtedly beautiful and black, she is unapologetic and joyful regarding both.

A Rozay by any other name…

I like William Leonard Roberts, the real man behind the public persona of the rapper Rick Ross. I like him for what I imagine him to be—an individual of working-class roots, thrust into a realm of wealth and excess, desperately attempting to remain competitive with men of poverty in regards to bravado, and men of wealth in regards to indications of abundance. I project a great deal of myself onto Roberts I suppose. I too feel caught between worlds of greater than and less than, and feel as if I am a fraud in both. There is a double consciousness at work, not of race but of class. And unlike the eventual smooth transition that occurs with race (as Dave Chappelle joked, every black person possesses the ability to speak “street vernacular” and “job interview”), transitioning between various socioeconomic groups is uncomfortable. Awkward. It does not help that to be working class is to be in transition. One is either slipping into poverty or climbing one’s way into the middle class. One’s children will most likely not share one’s economic status as adults.

It is interesting that Roberts was able to propel himself into the realm of the wealthy by assuming the invented persona of a once poverty-stricken man now loaded with ill-gotten gains. Ross is nothing more than a mask for Roberts to don. Roberts is not a criminal who escaped from an impoverished ghetto, but a former blue-collar correctional officer. He is not an elegant mafia mastermind who delights in high-end luxuries, but an average man still elated by a trip to the strip club and a well-seasoned bucket of wings.

I would say that William Leonard Roberts is a fraud, but you cannot fool one already aware of the game. Like a submissive that has paid for abuse, America both fears and adores the stereotype of black men that Ross presents. It abhors it, and yet demands it for titillation, luring men outside the lines within the narrow box it has provided.

Ross is the monster in the fun house—an empty threat, a thrill. So, when I heard his lyrics in “U.O.E.N.O.,” I simply shook my head. Was I supposed to feel threatened? Disrespected? How could I be disrespected by a joke? I should clarify that Ross’ lyrics are not the joke, but the Ross persona itself.

In hindsight, I realize the issue. There are those for whom Ross is not a mask, but a reality—women for whom Ross is not an empty threat, but a real one; young men for whom Ross is not a punch line, but a compatriot. For the sake of those women and men, Ross’ lyrics must be publicly denounced and Ross himself must be punished.

Yet, I cannot help but think of Roberts. How bewildered and heartsick he must be that his mask was rejected! At first tested by “the streets,” his persona successfully weathered the firestorm of the public announcement of his former employment. It is now being tested by “the suburbs”—middle and upper-class white women with socioeconomic clout. I do believe Ross will weather this storm as well, but not without a reduction of the perimeter of his permitted area—something I honestly feel should occur. Point blank, Roberts, once again attempting to shoehorn drug use and criminal activity into his lyrics for “street cred,” clearly crossed the line.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes Roberts embraces entirely, but America seems intent on maintaining their existence. Perhaps the best we can do for the moment is to emphasize that these are merely roles; we have the choice to exploit them for profit—or not.

I want this, comic artists. Really.

With RZA now at Black Mask, I’ve been thinking about my old idea for a graphic novel/anthology where artists draw comics utilizing lyrics as scripts. My idea? It’s fabulous. Just saying. And while I always knew which songs I wanted drawn, I had never attached them to specific artists. Let’s rectify that, shall we?

“Children’s Story” by Slick Rick and Adam Warren
“Shakey Dog” by Ghostface Killah and Chris Brunner
“The Sweetest Thing” by Lauryn Hill and Afua Richardson
“On the Run/Murder” by Royce da 5’9″ and Ron Wimberly
“Break You Off” by The Roots and Terry Dodson

Feel free to add your own to the wish list! Get on this, comics industry!


“Honestly, when it comes to comics and nostalgia, I want more Public Enemy than Puffy. Meaning, you should take the old stuff and mix it into some weird ish that is only vaguely familiar.”

Cheryl Lynn Eaton

The comics industry is awash in nostalgia and has been for decades. And though the word nostalgia has become distasteful to many, it is not the existence of nostalgic work that is a problem. The ubiquitous nature of it is.

We need our rituals and our well-worn tales. They provide comfort, instruct children as to how to make their way in society, and honor those who have come before. In comics, many creators choose to pay homage to the elders they admire through mimicry and the utilization of classic characters. Wonderful stories in many genres have been created via this method. The stories are akin to “party joints,” songs where a rapper raps over an existing beat ripped from an older song. Puffy (Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean Combs) was notorious for this. The result is fun and fanciful, but it brings absolutely nothing new to the table. The creative effort involved in such a project is negligible. These works are needed to pay tribute—to enact a ritual—but if they are all that a society produces? Said society is no longer moving forward artistically. It has become stagnant.

The comics industry has become so bound by its nostalgia that it has nearly ground to a halt. Rigid adherence to what has come before is only useful and enjoyable in small doses. The majority of the artistic works produced must be innovative. What is created throughout the ages must change as our society changes. Like a closed commune, the comic industry primarily watches society change from afar and makes no changes within.

After I made the comments posted above on Twitter, Brandon Graham asked me what comics I would consider “Public Enemy comics.” I wanted to say Prophet, but I am completely ignorant of the Extreme universe prior to the recent relaunch. However, having read enough Conan, I can safely say that Prophet could be placed within that category.

At the time of the group’s debut, Public Enemy’s sound was completely novel. It was nothing like what had come before. What was fantastic about the music produced was that it lovingly paid tribute to the founders of modern black music and yet honored the new community it was creating for simultaneously. And one does not have to actually sample older works to achieve this. Frank Ocean inspires vague remembrances of the Dramatics and Prince, but his work is wholly his own.

I wish to see this method adopted by comics. I want to see love letters written to Kirby and the world that we live in now. To survive as an industry? Comics must embrace the past and the present at once.

Troubled waters.

Frank Ocean publicly addressed his sexuality recently, with the same deftness, eloquence, and gentleness that is evident in the manner he approaches his music. I was elated at his announcement and at the warm reception he received. I was glad to see that another young man had the strength of character and the purity of spirit to share his true self with the world and to show that queer men of color have been a part of our community and have contributed immensely to our culture. However, I was also pleased for more selfish reasons. I had hoped that if the straight and straight-identified men of hip-hop could openly love and embrace the black men who resided in their hearts and their minds and their beds, that perhaps they could embrace the black women who inhabited those same regions as well. My hopes have been dashed, for I realize that the hatred of black women is so profitable and pervasive and has such a tenacious hold on mainstream hip-hop that the men of power and/or influence in hip-hop would likely extinguish the culture entirely before relinquishing it.

And yet, strangely, due it its current ubiquitousness, hatred of black women is not a tenet of hip-hop, is not necessary for hip-hop to thrive, nor was it present at its birth. Though the arena was dominated by men, women were given a clear voice in the genre via ladies such as Roxanne Shanté. Hip-hop in its earliest days was an even field where men and women of color could have an open dialogue—one that was teasing and playful. The words of black women were considered and sought for inclusion. Black women were not depicted as a monolith and had multiple roles available to them—sister, wife, and lover; trophy, thief, and soldier; adversary and confidant. No, not all of these roles were beneficial. However, there was diversity and choice. That choice is long gone, quietly usurped during the late nineties and aughts with the onset of the commercialization of gangsta rap and its permeation of hip-hop.

The misogyny directed towards black women in gangsta rap was a curious thing rooted directly in America’s racist history. There are black men everywhere, in numerous countries, counties, and cities. And in all you could find black men who struggle against deprivation and violence. And yet it is in America where the hatred, debasement, and ridicule of black women in particular were originally forged in song for relief and release. And America, which has culture as its chief export, packages this hatred and ships it, spreading the cancer that is our unique brand of racism to all regions of Gaia’s womb—from Compton to Krakow to Conakry.

Vast, multinational empires have been built, powered by the engine of a small number of young black boys coming of age sans the guidance, education, and environment required to become men. Lacking a father, uncle, grandfather, guardian, or mentor of worth to define what masculinity is, it is easy to fall prey to the binary doctrine of what is male being classified as that which is decidedly not “female”—not nurturing, not dependable, not emotional, not loving. To secure one’s masculinity one must reject these ideals; one must degrade them and the source from which they are purported to originate—black women.

A handful of young black teens, cobbling together their masculinity in the absence of positive male figures, wandering like nomads through an environment utterly saturated with virulent anti-black racism, gave birth to gangsta rap. What else could have manifest? The music was angry, composed by men who had every right to be furious regarding their treatment by society. And the music depicted black women as worthless receptacles, (1) due to the erroneous binary doctrines discussed earlier that required the rejection of intimacy, (2) due to centuries of American-cultivated propaganda depicting black women as hypersexualized beasts of burden, and (3) due to America’s careful instruction that to be of worth, one must stand over another—preferably the descendants of slaves. These men—stripped of political, social, and economic power—had only one group left to subjugate: the women who shared their status.

The music, callous as the lyrics could be, was embraced for many reasons: the messages rode on beats and melodies many African Americans enjoyed during childhood; the music provided a coping mechanism for black and Latino youth experiencing economic devastation and/or enduring social indignities that stemmed from racism; and it provided white teens of the middle and upper classes with an outlet to defy authority.

It was the final example to which music executives took notice. White children brought money. Money bolstered the longevity of gangsta rap and allowed the subgenre to dominate and warp all others. (Amusingly, it mimics the dominance of the superhero in comics. Perhaps that is why the two blend so effortlessly.) The elements of gangsta rap that mainstream white audiences found so titillating—the violence, the sexual exploitation of women, the criminal activity, the illusion of invincibility—was shoehorned into countless acts, whether the genuine result of the artist’s history or not.

As a black woman, it is disturbing to watch white men and women be given agency in the world we gave birth to with black men, to see these black men develop camaraderie—jovial basking in racist misogyny—with them while we are pigeonholed in the role of a subservient clown or whore. We’ve been reduced to less than three-fifths of a human—merely an ass and six bags of someone else’s hair—our faces not even deemed worthy of a camera’s lens or a “featured” role in a video. And when we speak up, when we dare to criticize the treatment we receive? We are ostracized as traitors, labeled “haters,” and demonized for attempting to diminish a rapper’s success, success often driven by our tears and our humiliation. The bodies of black women have been used as fuel. And no maudlin, mediocre sixteen bars about mothers and daughters each decade will mollify that. You need more people.

The commonality shared by black women and queer men of color is that hip-hop has demanded our silence during our disrespect. It is almost Athenian in its outlook. So when Frank Ocean broke that silence and was not punished for it, I was intrigued. And then I realized the key difference in the role of queer men and straight black women in hip-hop. Negative depictions of queer men do not move units. Queer men are erroneously believed not to be able to move units at all. They are forced to be invisible as well as silent. Black women are to be seen—preferably stripped—and not heard.

Mustering only a minor fraction of the courage shown by Frank Ocean, I’m speaking up and speaking out. I’m seeking better music for my rotation. I’m demanding respect from those who demand my money. Will it improve hip-hop? Probably not.

But it will improve me.

Rest peacefully, B.I.G.

It was all a dream!
I used to read Wizard magazine.
J. Scott Campbell had the hottest book with Gen 13.
Marc Silvestri on my wall.
Every Saturday get my stash from the shop across the mall.

I let my pen drop ’til the ink stopped.
Built my own universe listenin’ to “Planet Rock.”
Way back, when there wasn’t many black writers, jack.
Just James on the rack.
‘Member Milestone, dude? Xombi, Icon.
You never thought that those dudes would make it that long.
Now they in the limelight. TV pays right.
Comics they made get bound up in fresh trades.

Four color! Back reading books under covers.
Remember when I used to cop X-Men from brothers.
Peace to Jack, Joe, Jerry S., and Stan Lee.
Without your dreams theirs would not be.
Kick back, relax, ’cause you’ve all done good.
Check the stores, same heroes have stood
since childhood.

And if you don’t know? Now you know.