When the Audience Just Doesn’t Get It
By Davej1006 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
This article was originally published on March 23, 2017.
The year is 2005. 50 Cent is the greatest rapper on the planet, Nelly is still a thing, and we all know who (WHO?) Mike Jones is. I’m an awkward middle schooler with a Tommy Pickles neck rocking 3x tall tees that lord over my body like a hospital gown. These are good times.
Everyday in my school’s cafeteria, me and my friends gather around a table and talk about what I hope everyone was talking about at the time: the Detroit Pistons, Kanye West, and, most importantly, The Chappelle Show (soon all of this would be replaced by Flavor of Love). To us, Dave Chappelle was the greatest thing since Yu-gi-oh. We’d die laughing rehashing the latest skits on his show, crack jokes on our friend Keith Kelley (I wonder where he’s at nowadays) and call him Tyrone Biggums because his lips were always chapped. We’d do our own racial draft, where I was always chosen by the whites because, in a school full of niggas in 2005, the whitest kid was the one who wasn’t rocking a full Dickie fit like everyone else. These were great times.
And then, poof, they were over. The Chappelle Show ended. Dave Chappelle vanished.
Remember, this was a time before YouTube had really permeated the culture; Facebook wasn’t yet a thing for us either, so pretty much all of our information came from morning radio on the school bus, parents, and our ever so reliable twelve and thirteen year old peers. So the narrative about Dave Chappelle quickly turned grave. He was a crackhead! He’d gone crazy! How else can you explain leaving $50 million on the table? For years, this was the narrative I heard spewed about Chappelle, and I believed it until I grew up and figured out what was really going on.
Fast forward to the year 2013. I’m the starting quarterback on my Division III, private, predominantly white, liberal arts college football team. We suck, but we suck a whole lot less the year I was running the offense than in previous years (insert shameless plug here). Our home games are usually attended by a couple hundred fans–mostly friends, family, alumni, and a handful of students that needed something to do on a Saturday afternoon. We’d play our games, and then, win or lose, go to whatever house party was going on that weekend and get lit the way only midwestern white folks know how to. These were good times. Really, they were. But then, just like that, things went awry.
I got called the N-word too many times by too many white people at those parties–some in good spirit (is that possible?) and some in the old-fashioned way with the hard -er tacked on the end as it was flung from a passing car or a dark porch. I got reported as a suspicious person for walking around campus at night in a hoodie. All of the slight microaggressions began piling up and seeming less and less micro as the days passed.
So, as any reasonable 19 year old would do, I got angry. I told my coaches about the nonsense I’d been dealing with. I told teammates about it, and, of course, I was told to chill out, that I was making a big deal out of nothing, that none of this had anything to do with race, and that I was being a distraction to the team.
This only made me more angry and disoriented. I think the technical term for what they did is gaslighting. And to make matters worse, my anger seeped outside the confines of our locker room so that our fans knew that I was the angry black guy as well as fellow students. Now, after the games, which we were winning more of (shameless plug #2), there were no parents and alumni coming to shake my hand, no white girls at the parties trying to go back to my dorm with me. And eventually, I got to a point where I had felt crazy long enough, so I walked away. I quit the team in the sloppiest way possible and my reputation was ruined for good. I was crazy, I was cynical, and I was lazy. I was a Division III Dave Chappelle.
The reason I’m saying all this actually has little to do with Dave Chappelle and little to do with myself, though now is as good a time as ever to write about him considering that he’s finally reemerged into the spotlight with two Netflix specials (and a third that is forthcoming all for a reported $60 million) that I hope you will go watch. Ours is simply a case study that I’ve been reflecting on recently after a recent hip-hop concert that I attended.
I was crazy, I was cynical, and I was lazy. I was a Division III Dave Chappelle.
This past weekend, I went and saw rapper Vince Staples on the first night of two sold out shows that he played in Chicago as a part of his Life Aquatic Tour. Vince Staples is from Long Beach, California, home of fellow Crip Snoop Dogg. Like Snoop, Vince spent a good chunk of his adolescence gangbanging, and rap was his ticket out of that life. Unlike Snoop, Vince came up closely affiliated with a group of black rappers that were seen as more usurpers in black American culture rather than as participants within it. As a result, despite the tales of street life and the million other super black elements of his music, Vince seems to have, based off this show, a really, really white fanbase, even by hip-hop standards (which is consumed voraciously by white folks), though the demographics of the show may have been skewed by the concert’s location on the North Side of Chicago.
With that being said, while I thought the show was super dope and I want everyone to check out his music and see him live if they can, there seemed to be some sort of tension between the performer and the audience. It’s just something a little disorienting about being in a room full of hundreds of white folks going crazy jumping up and down while a lone black figure on stage says things like, “I’m just a nigga,/until I fill my pockets/And then I’m Mr. Nigga/They follow me while shopping” and “Heaven, Hell, free or jail, same sh–/County jail bus, slave ship, same sh–.”
In my eyes, it looked like there was an obvious disconnect between what the artist was saying versus the way the crowd was reacting to it. That is, the audience just didn’t get it. Now, I know most people aren’t spending their hard-earned money to go to a show to stand at attention while they’re lectured about the plight of black Americans, and I doubt Staples wanted the crowd to react that way. But when it comes down to it, that’s what his music is. Vince Staples is one of the most poignant, clever, and blunt voices in rap today. He’s what would happen if you took NWA, Kendrick Lamar, 2005 Dave Chappelle, a Black Panther, and DMX (without the crack) and mixed them together in a blender.
At only 23 years old, he’s already released a critically-acclaimed album and EP, and it’s even more crucial to listen to the words of artists like him in the current American landscape where we have a degenerate president who only knows how to make things worse. Vince paints pictures of the types of urban landscapes that Trump used to appeal to the racist inclinations of 62 million Americans (3 million less than Crooked Hillary), but, unlike Trump, he humanizes those spaces, showing both the good and the bad and making sure not to pass judgment on the bad because what choices are available in intentionally under-resourced communities? While concerts are supposed to be fun, it just seems like a missed opportunity for fans of his to only come see him for the party and not the knowledge.
Shameless plug #3. Me at Kalamazoo College.
Vince Staples is smarter than me, though, and arguably a little smarter than Dave Chappelle was twelve years ago. Unlike me and Chappelle, Staples seems to have come to grips with the fact that the audience won’t get it–they come not to be taught, but to be entertained–so he did what any intelligent young man would do–he secured the bag. And with that bag, he is doing the real work in his own community affecting the people that really matter, all while I’m sitting at a bar on a Wednesday evening reminiscing about the football player that I could’ve been if my audience would’ve just understood me a little more.
Justin Danzy is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Black Diaspora Project. He received his BA in English and African Studies from Kalamazoo College in 2016. He is from Southfield, Michigan.