#BlackBoyJoy and Rae Sremmurd: The commoditization of blackness in music
Shortly following this year’s Video Music Awards ceremony, Chance the Rapper tweeted a red carpet photo of himself dressed in khaki overalls, arms outstretched like a human airplane and knees bent so that he came, at most, to half of his normal standing height. The caption read simply #BlackBoyJoy. The hashtag, now used hundreds of times, first appeared as a natural and necessary counterpart to the more established #blackgirlmagic. Both are meant to create a space for black people to celebrate themselves, outside of the projections society has placed on them. Stripping personas that have been layered on them for centuries, such as the angry black woman and thuggish black man, black people are using Twitter as a medium to present themselves as they are. This renaissance for black portrayal often presents as a hashtag.
What stands out in both hashtags is their reference to childhood. Many great figures, both historical and contemporary, have either put into words or acted out the deteriorating effects of what it means to be black in America. The acclaimed black 20th century American novelist James Baldwin gave a famous interview in which he discussed the surprise that falls on a black child arriving to full consciousness who realizes that, for every black individual, “the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you.” Baldwin often discussed blackness in the visual field as a state that is in many ways constituted by being ignored and made invalid by white counterparts. So, in the hashtags #BlackBoyJoy and #blackgirlmagic, you have black people not only creating a space to be seen but also pledging allegiance to themselves, their greatness, their value.
To reference childhood is to acknowledge that once a black person, and especially a black American, has reached adulthood, there are sorts of “magic” and “joy” that simply cannot be reclaimed if he or she is at all conscious of reality, a reality that has become increasingly inescapable with the practice of sharing police executions of black citizens on any given Twitter or Facebook timeline. Chance the Rapper is no longer a boy by most standards; he is 23, a father and businessman. But he still invokes the energy of boyhood to define himself. In contrast to the virtual space of the hashtag, Chance the Rapper’s presentation, both in daily life and as he performs, is largely consumed by white audiences.
I attended a concert for Rae Sremmurd, the two-person rap group comprised of brothers Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown and Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown, on Oct. 9, thinking that the duo might exhibit some #BlackBoyJoy and bring me closer to an understanding of how it plays out in Chance’s field. As I watched from the crowd, nuances of childhood and blackness were in almost every aspect of the show. The giant monitor’s visuals were themed in the style of retro video games for most of the performance. Actual black child dancers, no older than 12, came out to give background support on at least three separate occasions, doing all of the dance moves made viral on Instagram and Twitter. At one point, Swae Lee spilled at least eight bottles of water, seemingly by accident, only to dance-slide his way across 15 feet of stage floor.
The energy of the room, which was thick and intense with flashing lights, jumping and a continuously booming bass line, seemed to make it almost completely void of the outside world. It was certainly an escape into childhood or #BlackBoyJoy, but one that, for better or worse, invited white audiences to join in every aspect. From recording the dancing black children to singing “know some young n—–s like to swang,” there seemed to be an inherent danger to escape. If one risks neglecting the consciousness that Baldwin once described, he or she is left vulnerable to society’s ugliest forces, those that allow for the consumption of black joy while dismissing some of life’s sorrows.
To see why #BlackBoyJoy has been successful, look to the entirety of Black Twitter, which has now existed for years as a source of entertainment and commentary centered on what is universal to the black community. There was a dearth of expression for black boy joy before the hashtag came about and what was present was not yet synthesized. Rapper Kid Cudi’s public acknowledgement of severe depression spread into a larger campaign, again on Twitter, for black men to confront struggles with mental illness. Perhaps these are all steps within a larger plan. Just as #BlackBoyJoy followed #blackgirlmagic, it is possible that the next great rap album by a male artist will be the natural counterpart to Solange Knowles’ “A Seat at The Table,” an album that so skillfully framed self-care and black female struggle that it resulted in the first time that two sisters had No. 1 albums in the same calendar year.
The most important song in Knowles’ album, “F.U.B.U.,” commands attention in the search to answer this question: Is uncensored black joy best left in hashtags and safe spaces in order to preserve it within the black community? Solange starts by addressing who the song is intended for. In that way, there can be no mistaking her audience, “All my n—-s in the whole wide world/ All my n—–s in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/ For us, this s— is for us.” She continues in her first verse to say, “When you know you gotta pay the cost/ Play the game just to play the boss/ So you thinking what you gained, you lost/ But you know your s— is taking off, oh/ When you driving in your tinted car/ And you’re criminal, just who you are/ But you know you’re gonna make it far.”
With this, she speaks in large part to the rappers who perform black boy joy. They pay the cost of having every piece of themselves appropriated for the privilege of knowing that they’ve “made it,” in a sense. They have the strange position of knowing that being successful and having fans sing their lyrics also means having the n-word screamed at them by largely white audiences. As they drive in fancy cars, the conditions of being black and male and naturally criminalized must not escape them. Still, there is a sort of allegiance pledged to the self when “you know you’re gonna make it far.”
If artists make the concept of “black boy joy” or “black girl magic” a focal point of their work and that work is then made public, the themes will be consumed and regurgitated mostly by white audiences, and its significance is depleted. In a lot of ways—and this is partially what Solange talks about—when black people produce works about joy or magic, it’s a form of self-care and a gift, not only to themselves but also to the larger black community. If white people are colonizing the work meant to heal black communities, then it no longer belongs to black people and it is, for the most part, lost. Solange’s album shows that it doesn’t necessarily have to be lost. and there are ways of making powerful works that are available to everyone, but can’t be taken over. She preserves her work by means of “watermarking,” when she sings “this s— is for us” and not only deals with the happy parts of black existence but also the anger and sadness. The diversity of her subject matter also works to her credit. People are generally less inclined to appropriate sadness, as opposed to “joy” or “magic.”
Whether uncensored black joy is best consumed in greater seclusion, the answer to me is no. Rather, black people and black artists must constantly strive to produce content for themselves and occupy as much space as is possible—space that is both physical and mental, with no walls to trap them in. If every piece that came out of the black community was metaphorically watermarked, as in the song “F.U.B.U.,” with its origins and its intended audience, then there would be no way for black boy joy, black girl magic or any other product of blackness to be distorted into anything less than its original intent.