2016 has seen the rise of several movements, most of which seem to have the country moving backward. Redeeming our many downfalls, however, has undoubtedly been entertainment and the arts, an industry that has earned the role of lifting our spirits since the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout this same history that has placed so much emphasis on entertainment, the largest group of contributors to the industry, Black people, have found themselves robbed and uncredited, leaving a sour taste on the tongues of Black entertainers and their descendants alike. Fortunately, in the age of shows like “Atlanta” and “Luke Cage”, it seems the tide is turning a bit and doing more than just giving credit to the originators and pioneers of staple A&E in the United States.
Whether it’s Donald Glover being given the reins to create and preside over his brainchild with “Atlanta” or former hip-hop journalist Cheo Coker on his latest endeavor to tell the contemporary story of a Black superhero, Black creators, specifically those in the hip-hop canon, have risen above their relegated roles as performers in 2016 to tell their stories unbridled; a characteristic that Rap has thrived on since its conception. Episode 7 of the quasi-absurd “Atlanta” spends ample time expounding on how the “hip-hop community” is given the opportunity to be a “ghetto news”. The meta of the moment in the show is amazing in itself.
Until recently, Black people had no such outlet in the mainstream media as potent as hip-hop music, which is hardly as pervasive as a program on TV or streaming service. With “Atlanta” streaming primetime on what is now a traditional medium, the ghetto news is told by a Black person to the masses on a larger scale than ever before without any ostensible interference or theft of the narrative by non-Black execs who wish to dilute messages or appropriate the plots in their image.
While programs like “The Cosby Show” and “The Jeffersons” were early depictions of Black life on TV, the issues truly affecting Black communities and the intricacies were hardly touched upon. Instead, the shows were largely modeled after a “traditional” or White middle-upper class upbringing at a time when Black people faced extreme poverty, drug addiction and increasing violence in neighborhoods around the country. Perhaps “Good Times”, founded by two Black men, did better than any other sitcom to provide social commentary while garnering a large audience. Still, the show’s principal characters eventually quit once fed up with the depiction of Black and perpetuating stereotypes, as noted in Kathleen Fearn-Banks’ “The A-Z of African-American Television”.
The practice given from being allowed to iterate hood tales without hinderance via hip-hop has prepared the Black executives in 2016 to thrive in the manner they have. It’s what finds 50 Cent in a position as an EP for “Power”, now in its 3rd season and further along in hip-hop conversations than many songs or other artists. NPR found Cheo Coker citing his reason for being in meetings with TV and film big wigs as being “the only person who’s been in South Central with an AK-47 on the ottoman and a police helicopter outside”. Their proximity to their truth awards them a credibility that is sought after in projects these days, especially on the heels of success of shows like “Power” and “Empire”, both packed with hip-hop music that lay under the drama of plots extending into the Rap sphere. “The Get Down”, which brought on Nas an executive producer and mentor to the show’s cast is just a literal way in which a rapper has taken part in a hip-hop tinged pedagogy fit for the screen.
Even when the topic isn’t directly related to hip-hop, rappers have been giving the keys to unfurl other stories of Black people that might otherwise be butchered and hijacked by White executives who simply lack the understanding and connection to the Black community to do a story justice. For example, Jay Z’s recently announced deal with The Weinstein Company not only shows promise of more programming from an unapologetically Black perspective but shows how trust is now being put in the hands of a rapper when another type of executive finds themselves out of bounds. One project is reportedly being based off the life of the first Black American Army sniper. It is being produced by Jay Z. On top of that, Jay’s role as producer in the forthcoming Kalief Browder docuseries gives the Brooklyn native a chance to develop on his recent New York Times narration and indictment of the criminal justice system. In addition, ABC is in works with “Hamilton”’s Daveed Diggs to produce a show surrounding a rapper turned mayor. Rap fans and Black people can’t help but relate to stories affecting their everyday lives while spectators, fortunate enough to boast an experience much different than Hov or Browder’s can consume a story told by vessels who are unconcerned with conveying non-Black people to be more merciful or understanding than they truly are or thought to be throughout history.
Allowing rappers to tell the stories as opposed to those not participating in the Black experience is likely the difference between what we were shown in the acclaimed “Straight Outta Compton” versus what might have been portrayed had the conniving Jerry Heller been at the helm to produce the acclaimed biopic himself. Non-Black executives trying to recite the stories and tribulations of Black people in their unique situation as an oppressed bloc simply lack the rhetoric to do so accurately and effectively. Thankfully, rappers and the sharp executives are seizing the opportunity to rectify and revolutionize the way Black people are perceived throughout the world on screen, at least for the time being. It’s the least the Black community could ask for in the face of years of media misrepresentation. With this push though, American society stands to better understand itself by seeing itself in a mirror held up by those who owe their successes to talking about their experiences.