This roundup is neither an exhaustive list of newsworthy events or releases in February 2021 nor a comprehensive list of everything worthy of coverage. These are but a few highlights worth exploring. I hope to interact with you on social media about some of your reflections from this Black History Month 2021.
Within moments of the first scene of Netflix’s drama Malcolm & Marie, you begin to wonder if it would not be more aptly named Malcolm versus Marie. It’s advertised as a love drama, but as the contents unfold love seems as absent as the color from the noir look and feel of the setting. The film turns into something you either can’t help but fully emotionally invest in or a saga not worth allowing your mind to get lost in. Whether your decision is fueled by intrigue or legitimate disinterest, Malcolm & Marie is a love story of a young Black unmarried couple trying to nail down the ineffable feeling, meaning, and purpose of love.
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) spend the entire film yelling, arguing, and making up in an Airbnb, ranting and trying to get the other person to hurt and make them understand how they feel. This rhythmic back and forth is a tempo any couple who’s fought through hard times will not only understand, but feel. Where does this fit into a Black History Month round-up you might ask? Well, besides that the two stars are phenomenal African American actors, what if you imagined their relationship as an allegorical metaphor for America’s relationship with African Americans? We’ll let your mind ponder who represents who in such a scenario. Perhaps someone will even write an article about this?
Kirk Franklin Performances
Kirk Franklin is a legend. This is a fact that can’t be overstated. The Fort Worth native has proven his musical genius for three decades and continues to use his platform to show not only that he’s still got it, but also that he’s unpretentious enough to highlight the good in others.
First, his performance for the iHeartRadio Living Black!—a show highlighting small black-owned businesses—put a spotlight on Black Coffee in Fort Worth, Texas. I purchase my coffee from this business, so it was a unique experience seeing a gospel music legend performing inside and outside the store with his band, donning a sweatshirt with Breonna Taylor’s face emblazoned on it. Franklin seems to never pass on an opportunity to uplift others with his service, activism, or music.
His second performance was an extension of his first. On NPR’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, Franklin and his band performed some new and old songs like “Love Theory,” “Silver and Gold,” “Melodies (From Heaven),” and “I Smile.” Throughout the performance Franklin has some candid conversations from behind his keyboard in his fashionable threads and shares encouragement to all who will listen. For those who may not be familiar with Franklin, for the Black church he’s something like Hillsong for white evangelical churches. For anyone who knows Kirk Franklin’s style and music, this was classic Kirk and it was encouraging to see him recognized as a part of NPR’s Tiny Desk celebration of Black artists for Black History Month.
Not many people are familiar with chairman of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton. Especially since images of the Panther’s have been grossly defamed and mischaracterized over the years. But the heavily award-nominated film Judas and the Black Messiah starring Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Judas (William O’Neal) should change that. Judas’ release during Black History Month is rather counterintuitive when considering that Hampton, a self-proclaimed socialist who felt the only way to fight America’s inequities was with socialism, might have despised using a capitalistic tactic to release a movie in February, as HBO Max arguably did. But that’s not the point of highlighting this movie.
Judas and the Black Messiah fits into the rhythm of Black History Month because it possesses many of the uncomfortable elements of Black culture worth engaging and analyzing today. Our mis-education of the Black Panthers, for example, stems from disinformation from the government about what it means for African Americans to truly fight for freedom. What’s often stressed during Black History Month is the tamed, misconstrued, meek and mild versions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with figures like Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers cast as the antithesis of King’s message. It also highlights how the seeds of discord have been and can be planted to disrupt a movement that could bring all people together for the greater good of one another. Kaluuya’s harrowing performance depicting Fred Hampton is hard to walk away from without constantly pondering what could’ve been if Hampton were given the opportunity to see his plan through fruition.
PBS’s The Black Church
The two night, two-episode Black Church documentary curated by Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides an introductory glance at the formation of the Black church in America. Gates traverses the religious experiences Africans brought with them from their homelands as they were trafficked to America and how the multifaceted practices of their faith shaped many church traditions that remain today. Gates also makes necessary connections to how the Black church has influenced American pop culture and politics as we know it today.
But for however exploratory the documentary tried to be, in the end it stirred controversy, particularly for those who are well-versed in Black Church history (I’d recommend listening to Pass the Mic’s podcast conversation). For all of the documentary’s controversies in the end, however, it opened dialogue about the Black Church. Like most institutions, the Black Church carries nuances, has inflicted wounds, has controversies, and is changing. Acknowledging these things on a platform like PBS provides for a cathartic experience as the institution is brought out of the periphery of mainstream culture and onto the national stage for us to review, assess, scrutinize, and consider the significance and contributions of the Black Church.
You might find this entry unfit for a Black History Month roundup, but its inclusion is important if we know what was on trial during the impeachment proceedings rather than merely who was on trial. The “what” was white supremacy and the who was merely an embodiment of white supremacy. In the face of a mountain of evidence, which no lawmaker could deny, United States Republican senators chose to unnervingly continue a dangerous pattern of dismissing (at best) or embracing (at worst) political violence—a bludgeoning apparatus—to uphold a system of white supremacy.
Why does this matter or why is it included in a Black History Month 2021 roundup on Christ and Pop Culture? If Christ is to define the merits by which we embrace, analyze, or critique pop culture, then having an understanding of the kind of message it sends to black, white, brown, yellow, and red Christians in American culture is vital. That Christ’s name can be used in this country for an attempt to violently undo democracy in the literal chambers of American democracy is haunting when considering how to navigate pop culture. We don’t feel protected, and nowhere feels safe. This is the classic playbook of white supremacy, and it has worked for hundreds of years. A Christ-like mindset will help us to navigate and explore just how interconnected our politics and pop culture affect each other, and why the acquittal of Trump is so damnable to our Christian message when it comes to loving our neighbors. For a well-nuanced minority perspective of the acquittal I suggest giving Propaganda’s Hood Politics podcast a listen.
You wouldn’t know that this was singer Andra Day’s debut acting performance in Lee Daniels’s United States vs Billie Holiday. The way Day captures Lady Day’s musical notes, facial expressions, and body movements is nothing short of phenomenal and it earned her a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama motion picture.
The story she and Daniels tell of singer/songwriter Billie Holiday commiserates the tragedy and cost of telling truth through art. The film explores the lengths the United States government was (and is) willing to go to stop even singers like Holiday from bringing awareness to the violence African Americans were experiencing in Jim Crow America. Holiday’s infamous song “Strange Fruit” was one of the first of its kind that we today call protest art. The song narrates and paints a picture of what lynching was like in America, and the FBI used every means necessary to stop her from singing the song in public. What they found was a “War on Drugs” blueprint that would later be used on African Americans across urban cities decades later. The FBI used Holiday’s trauma from a young child all the way up to her early death as a weapon against her to keep her from singing a song.
A. D. “Lumkile” Thomason’s Permission to Be Black: My Journey with Jay-Z and Jesus
Too often, when African Americans go in search of the truth and truly encounter the gospel of Jesus Christ in majority white evangelical spaces, they are required to check their cultural norms and values at the door in exchange for white ones. This cultural undressing ensures the power structure remains intact as is. But this isn’t how the gospel has traditionally spread across the globe, and A. D. Thomason’s book Permission to Be Black uses his story to encourage Black Christians to be Black, bringing with them their blackness to the cross and the culture.
More about the book from the back cover:
While many saw a confident, six-foot five Black man, A. D. Thomason lived most of his life in fear and anguish, deeply wounded by encounters with violence, abandonment, and family tragedy. . .
A. D. discovered stirring honesty in the art of Jay-Z that gave voice to his own expressions of longing. And in the gospel of Jesus, he experienced the healing and salvation that had long evaded him. Now through what he calls ‘kingdom therapy,’ he’s figuring out how to redefine the Jay-Z and Jesus that make up his blackness.
Houston’s own Tobe Nwigwe and his wife ‘Fat,’ along with their talented team of singers, dancers, and musicians, put on an incredible performance in his late night TV debut for Jimmy Kimmel Live. If you’ve followed Nwigwe for the past year, or longer, then it was nothing short of the excellence they usually display: well-choreographed dancing and music and impeccable timing that congeals into more of an experience than a performance. Tobe’s versatility to use his voice as soft and salient melodic tones that mixes with his sopranic background singers, as well as his deep and raspy Houston Swishahouse–style flows, floods the auditory senses in ways unlike most performers today.
But where the Jimmy Kimmel experience stands out is in his message and challenge to people of all walks of life to embrace the fact that we are all change makers. But the world won’t change unless we actually change it: “The world won’t get no better/ If you just let it be,” Tobe and his background singers sing. As a believer, Tobe was able to preach to the masses a gospel-enriched message of who God calls all of us to be as His image-bearers. Each person has a responsibility to make and use culture for the flourishing of the Earth and all who inhabit it by means of the God-given talents, time, skills, abilities, and desires we possess.
Overall, this is the embodiment of what Black History Month is about: to highlight the contributions the most historically marginalized community has made, could have made, and is making to and for the culture.
These contributions are birthed from joy and lament, celebration and sadness, commemoration of the past and considerations of what can be in the future. For that reason, Black history cannot simply be relegated to a month, but instead ought to continually be brought into, celebrated, and considered just as ardently alongside the rest of American history and pop culture. Without it, our culture is severely incomplete.